And Evidence

In his 1996 book 'Bodies Under Siege' Dr Armando Favazza explores the historical, anthropological and clinical associations between body modification and self harm. Although the mushrooming popularity of tattooing has dated the book somewhat, it remains the definitive text on the subject and discusses self harm and the psychologies involved at great length. According to Favazza's research, self harm and tattooing are only lightly associated, the conclusion being that body modification is primarily a culturally motivated process, rather than a psychologically, biologically or socially backdrop to a person's love of tattoos or indeed behind which design they get.

As Skin Deep forum contributor Monkey Chick (not her real name) brilliantly puts it: "I am getting sick of people asking me for the story behind my ink. Come on now, I have a cake tattoo - what story do you think it is? Ho, it is not a tribute to my dead baking Grandmother. It's 'cos I like cakes!"

I'm not sure there is much evidence to support the notion that Monkey Chick's tattoos are a manifestation of a troubled psychology or a form of socially acceptable self harm. But who knows? Perhaps there is some deeply hidden cake-related trauma she has yet to reconcile.


Although many tattoos and piercings can be considered purely decorative, most people do still have deep personal motivations for collecting tattoos. In the epilogue to 'Bodies Under Siege' Fakir Musafar, the father of the modern primitives movement, lists a series of recurring motivations in cultures where body modification has been prevalent. These include rites of passage, peer bonding, insignias of respect, status symbols of bravery or courage, initiation, protection from evil, spiritualism responses to a survey* into the most common reasons for self harming.

72 % To control their mind when it is racing.

65% To feel relaxed.

58% To feel less depressed.

55% To feel real again.

47% To feel less lonely.

4o% To atone for sins.

20% To respond to 'voices'.

12% To respond to evil spirits.

(Favazza and Uontano 1999.)

*Ir should be noted that the respondents in this survey were female. This is noted not for its relevance but simply for the sake of factual accuracy.

Many psychologists will admit that self-harm is not an entirely negative process. It is accepted that the process of self harm can stop and reverse a downhill spiral of psychological 'dysfunction'. In some cases self-harmers have stated that harming halted the compulsion towards suicide.

Most experts agree that a less destructive coping mechanism would be preferable, but there are a minority who suggest that society should simply accept self harm as a valid and effective process. Favazza himself describes self harm as a 'morbid form of self help'. Given that all psychology and behaviour must exist within the framework of what current culture deems acceptable, I'm not convinced that society will embrace self harm any time soon.

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