A few decades ago, tattooing used to be a mark of an outsider. Someone who flaunted social conventions. Prison inmates used tattooed tears to indicate how many times they’d been inside. The closest thing to an acceptable tattoo was a Royal Navy or Merchant Marine sailor with an anchor on his biceps along with the name of his loved one—quite frequently ‘Mum’. (Let’s not forget that sailors are often outsiders who keep a foothold in society largely by staying away from it.) Later, Chinese characters started appearing on ankles or the base of the neck. They were demure, mysterious and vaguely alluring.

Then at some point tattooing went big time. Perhaps it was David Beckham and the mega-star footballers of the English Premier League that made tattooing acceptable. Fully tattooed arms are now de rigeur in the world’s top footballing divisions. Socially sanctioned by the big money of football advertising deals, tattooing was in.

This raises a question: is heavy tattooing healthy? I interject the word ‘heavy’ to differentiate from those Chinese characters or the butterflies that grace the wrists of those using the butterfly technique to manage impulses to self-harm. (I have a friend who successfully gravitated from a felt pen butterfly to a tattooed one.) And by ‘healthy’ I mean, does it add to the recipient’s psychological wellbeing?

Emotional cohesion

My background is in process analysis. That means I notice when data does and doesn’t correlate. Some time back I noticed a correlation between heavy tattooing and the body language of emotional disempowerment. I began to wonder whether there was a connection between the two. Hence the question in the title of this post—is heavy tattooing healthy?

When you work with emotional intelligence—your own or that of others—long enough you learn to read the signs. There’s a pressure in the face, a brittle, damaged look in the eyes, self-defeating or self-denigrating words that slip into sentences when a more positive lexicon could have been used.

There’s a pressure in the face, a brittle, damaged look in the eyes, self-defeating or self-denigrating words that slip into sentences when a more positive lexicon could have been used

If you’re around for long enough—very often such people tend to slip away—you see the destructive behaviour. One acquaintance I knew spoke longingly of a large tattoo on his back because of the amount of pain involved. Some self-harmers use tattoos as a means of protecting their bodies from self-harm. If they spend a lot of money on a tattoo then they won’t damage it by cutting. It’s an expensive variant of the butterfly technique, I guess. Others use tattoos to cover up self-harm scars. Whichever way you slice it (sorry), the emotional damage is there. Somewhere. It might be in the tattoo or concealed by it. Either way, it’s inseparable.

Dysfunction festers

What about David Beckham? He seems to be handling both stardom and retirement better than many of his peers. His charity work is exemplary. However, he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Victoria Beckham reports that in his drinks fridge, “…everything is symmetrical. If there’s three cans, he’ll throw one away…” Even in his world of multi-million-pound advertising icons, emotional dysfunction festers.

So what’s the verdict? This is not a scientific survey, just a pulse check based on personal observation. I might be wrong. I’d like to think so; I detest emotional dysfunction no matter who it affects. But it’s hard to escape the sense that many heavy tattooers are projecting their emotional wounds onto their physical bodies. The problem with this approach is that the canvas is limited. What happens when it runs out?

It all comes down to motivation. What’s the real reason for getting this tattoo? No, not the reason that’s swirling around in your mind as a justification. The real reason, the one you can’t quite articulate. In there, in that grey area where the logical mind gives way to non-verbal, unconscious impulses, lies the answer.

Image by Claudio Scott on Pixabay. Cropped to 16:9.

Note: Since posting I noted this article by Brooke Scheller on the risk of toxicity from the heavy metals in some tattooing inks.