Relation Between Tattoo Magic

I will put my cards on the table straight away; I am not a qualified psychiatrist and my experience of self harm extends no further than picking the occasional scab. I have never, to my knowledge, suffered from any mental health issues, although some may disagree.

' owever, many people appear to have an insightful understanding of my mental health whenever I reveal my tattoos. It is a familiar scenario and one that many . tattoo owners will have experienced. Around the dinner table or at the bar, the conversation turns to body art, and very soon you can expect the ever faitlrful, backhanded insult

"Well, isn't tattooing just a socially acceptable form of self harm?"

Despite being a clumsy, broad brush stroke statement, the 'self harm' aspersion is a tasty sound-bite on which a prejudice is easily hung. It has annoyed me for many reasons, not least because I wasn't entirely sure if it could possibly be accurate.


Needless to say there is no one simple answer to the question and a discussion on the Skin Deep website foium revealed a vast array of opinions and experience. In much the same way that tattoo culture comprises an enormous variety of different folk, the relationship between self harm and tattoos is similarly complex. But it appears that there IS a relationship and that many self harmers also happen to be tattoo owners.


One of the people I interviewed for this feature made a very good point, stating that "Some tattoos can be described as "mutilation", or "defacing a body". It has to be said that some of the more extreme tattoos, and here I'm talking everlasting job stoppers on the face and hands as well as gross and shocking tattoos, may well be done as self-

harm. A desire to outwardly show what is inwardly felt to be abhorrent or repulsive. To vahdate those critics who have destroyed someone's self-esteem to the point where they truly feel themselves worthless of cherishing," Whilst this is undoubtedly true in a minority of cases, most would accept that this scenario is rare and not representative of tattoo culture in general.

Although examples such as those outlined above would appear to support the suggestion that tattooing is self harm, closer scrutiny shows that the relationship between the two is far from being a direct one. There is no direct 'cause and effect' transaction at work.


There are many differences, but in order to understand them we must define the specific form of self harm that we are talking about. In strict literal terms, any 'harm' or 'injury' which a person oonsensualiy inflicts upon themselves could be referred to as self harm, and so getting a tattoo could be said to fit this coarse definition.

However, the term 'self harm' has some very specific implications pertaining to clinical psychology and this more widely understood definition has little in common with tattooing. Beyond the physical aspects of the two procedures (ie the breaking of the skin, the blood and pain), there appears to be little correlation with the associated psychologies. Issue 1Ö6


'Self harm' is the mo it frequently used term to describe the behaviours discussed in this feature and so has been adopted by the author throughout. Quotes from other sources may use different expressions.

motivated one as self harm invariably is.

Favazza says that cultural practices imply activities that are faddish and hold little underlying significance. Piercing of earlobes or nose to accommodate jewellery are examples of such practices.' Given the proliferation of tattooing into mainstream culture since his book was written, I would guess Favazza might suggest the same 'faddish' status surely applies to many tattoos. Often there is no enormous psychological and (most interestingly in terms of this article) physical and psychological healing.

These traditional motivations are also often cited by modern tattoo fans. It should be noted that these motivations are primarily positive and regenerative experiences with primary gains; much different to the underlying negative psychological processes at work in the case of self harm.

There seems little correlation between the primary motivations for getting tattoos and the

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