How does a tattoo help in trauma therapy? What does a semicolon on a person’s wrist mean? Often a tattoo is much more than just a form of self-expression. We talk about the directions of art therapy associated with drawings on the body.
Tattoos can carry a completely different meaning. Since ancient times, they have been an accessory and a kind of “code” of various social groups, from circus performers to bikers and rock musicians, and for some, this is another way of self-expression. But there are those for whom drawings on the body are a kind of therapy that helps to heal and recover from a traumatic past.
“A person gets a tattoo to tell a story. Neck, finger, ankle, face… We humans have been telling our stories here for centuries,” writes Robert Barkman, professor emeritus at Springfield College.
Permanent tattooing on the skin is an ancient art, and the oldest known person with a tattoo lived over 5000 years ago. Due to the fact that he died in the Alps and ended up in the ice, his mummy is well preserved – including the tattooed lines applied to the skin.
It is difficult to guess their meaning, but, according to one version, it was something like acupuncture – in this way, the Ice Man Yeqi was treated for degeneration of the joints and spine. To date, the tattoo continues to have a healing effect, helping, perhaps, in healing the soul.
Tattoos are very personal.
Most people stuff them to tell their story of pain, triumph, or obstacles they have had to face and overcome in their lives. Tattoos in the form of semicolons, stars and feathers speak of past difficulties, hopes for the future and freedom of choice.
“Beloved by most people, the miniature star signifies truth, spirituality and hope, and in some cases speaks of faith. As we all know, stars radiate light in space, in endless darkness. It seems that they lead their owner along unknown paths. They have everything that people need, and therefore have become such a favorite topic for tattoos, ”said Barkman.
Some tattoos carry much more than meets the eye. A miniature symbol – a semicolon – can speak of a serious situation in a person’s life and the difficulty of the choice he faces. “This punctuation marks a pause, usually between two main sentences,” recalls Barkman. – Such a pause is more significant than the one given by a comma. That is, the author could have decided to finish the sentence, but chose to take a break and then write a sequel. By analogy, a semicolon as a tattoo symbol speaks of a pause in the life of someone who wanted to commit suicide.
Instead of committing suicide, people chose life – and such a tattoo speaks of their choice, that it is always possible to start a new chapter.
You can always believe in change – even when it seems there is simply nowhere to turn. So a small tattoo has become a global symbol of the fact that a person can give himself a pause in life, but not put an end to it. It was this idea that formed the basis of one of the international Internet projects.
With the conviction that suicide is fundamentally unacceptable, the Semicolon Project, created in 2013, contributes to reducing the number of suicides in the world. The project brings people together in an international community and provides them with access to important information and useful resources.
The organizers believe that suicide is preventable and that every person on the planet is collectively responsible for preventing it. The movement aims to bring people together – to inspire each other with energy and faith that we can all overcome the obstacles we face, no matter how big or small. Semicolon tattoos are sometimes also applied in memory of loved ones who committed suicide.
“Anchor” – a reminder of the important
In other cases, the very fact of getting a tattoo can mean a new chapter in a person’s personal history. For example, one of the expensive rehabilitation clinics in Chiang Mai (Thailand) recommends that those who have completed a full recovery course get a tattoo – as a symbol and a constant reminder of getting rid of a dangerous addiction. Such an “anchor” helps a person to assign victory over the disease. Constantly being on the body, it reminds of how important it is to stop and hold yourself at a dangerous moment.
New Moon Project
Another art therapy project using tattoos helps people literally write a new page on the body after old injuries. Renowned trauma specialist Robert Muller, professor of psychology at the University of York, talks about his student, Victoria, who self-harmed in her youth.
“It seems that I have had problems with mental balance all my life,” she admits. “Even as a child, I often felt sad and hid from people. I remember that such longing and self-hatred rolled over me that it seemed simply necessary to release it somehow.
From the age of 12, Victoria began to harm herself. Self-harm, writes Muller, can take many forms, such as cuts, burns, scratches, or something else. There are quite a few such people. And the majority, growing up and changing their lives and attitudes towards their bodies, would like to close the scars as traces of an unpleasant past.
Artist Nikolai Pandelides worked as a tattoo artist for three years. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, he shares his experience. People with personal problems increasingly turned to him for help, and Nikolai realized that it was time to do something for them: “So many clients came to me for tattoos to mask scars. I realized that there is a need for this, that there should be a safe space for people to feel comfortable and be able to talk about what happened to them if they wish.”
It was then in May 2018 that the Project New Moon appeared – a non-profit tattoo service for people who have scars from self-harm. Nikolay receives positive feedback from people from all over the world, which indicates the demand for such a project. At first, the artist paid for the expenses out of his own pocket, but now, when more and more people want to come and get help, the project is looking for funding through a crowdfunding platform.
Unfortunately, the topic of self-harm carries a stigma for many. In particular, people perceive such scars with condemnation and treat those who wear them badly. Nikolay has clients with a similar history as Victoria. Struggling with unbearable feelings, they self-damaged in adolescence.
Years later, these people come to get tattoos that hide scars.
One woman explains: “There are a lot of prejudices on this subject. Many people see people in our situation and think that we are just looking for attention, and this is a huge problem, because then we do not receive the necessary help … “
The reasons people choose to self-harm are complex and can be difficult to understand, writes Robert Mueller. However, it is commonly believed that such behavior is a way to release or distract from overwhelming emotional pain and anger, or to “take back a sense of control.”
Nikolai’s client says that she deeply regrets and repents of what she did to herself: “I want to get a tattoo to hide my scars, because I feel deep shame and guilt for what I did to myself … As I get older, I look at their scars with embarrassment. I tried to disguise them with bracelets – but the bracelets had to be removed, and the scars remained on my hands.
The woman explains that her tattoo symbolizes growth and change for the better, helped her forgive herself and serves as a reminder that, despite all the pain, a woman can still turn her life into something beautiful. For many, this is true, for example, people with different backgrounds come to Nikolai – someone suffered from substance addiction, and traces of dark times remained on their hands.
Turning scars into beautiful patterns on the skin helps people get rid of feelings of shame and powerlessness
In addition, it allows you to feel control over your body and life in general, and even prevent self-harm in case of recurrence of attacks of the disease. “I think part of that healing is also to feel equally beautiful, rejuvenated inside and out,” the artist comments.
The English clergyman John Watson, who at the turn of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries published under the pseudonym Ian MacLaren, is credited with the quote: “Be merciful, for every man fights an uphill battle.” When we meet someone with a pattern on their skin, we cannot judge and do not always know what chapter of life it is talking about. Perhaps we should remember that every tattoo can hide human experiences close to all of us – despair and hope, pain and joy, anger and love.