Body art in the form of tattoos have become more socially acceptable and even desirable in recent years (Wohlrab, Stahl & Kappeler, 2007). You may have read the recent articles about the rise in semi-colon tattoos to reduce stigma regarding mental illness (Gordon, 2015). Whether or not these tattoos speak to you, body art can be another form of art therapy. The history of tattoo and body art is rooted in tribal affiliation, cultural and spiritual practices and coming of age. In the recent past, tattoos represented a different kind of group affiliation such as belonging to the military or having been an inmate. In these cases, tattoos have been known to be an expression of surviving stressful situations, such as war, disaster or a traumatic event (Wohlrab, Stahl & Kappeler, 2007). Gentry and Alderman (2007) documented the popularity of tattoos in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to express stress, trauma, and honour loved ones and show pride in the City of New Orleans. Tattoos are described as visual memories that are accessible not only to the individual, but sometimes to the public as well. In the case of Katrina, tattoos were understood to be a “phenomenon of mourning” that crossed class, gender and racial lines (Gentry & Alderman, 2007, p.187). In this way, tattoos are a representation of belonging to a group, an experience or both.

Much like conventional art therapy that involves paper and pencil, tattoos can project inner conflict in a visual and often metaphorical form (Karacaoglan, 2012). With the rise in popularity of tattoo in mainstream culture, it is more common to see them exposed in the workplace (Wohlrab, Stahl & Kappeler, 2007). Recently I have been interested in the expression of tattoo art and the relationship to secondary traumatic stress. This is a topic I am fascinated by based on my work as a mental health nurse, and the prevalence of tattoos among my colleagues. There is much to be said about the beauty and the pain of this form of art.

Whether you see tattoos as art, art therapy, a form of storytelling or simply a passing phase it is a permanent part of the person who wears it. How interesting!



Gentry, G., & Alderman, D. (2007). Trauma written in the flesh: tattoos as memorials and stories. Narrating the Storm: Sociological Stories of Hurricane Katrina. New Castle, United Kingdom. Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 184-197.

Gordon, A. (2015, July 20). Semicolon tattoos surge in solidarity for those with mental illness. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from:

Karacaoglan, U. (2012). Tattoo and taboo: On the meaning of tattoos in the analytic process. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis93(1), 5-28.

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image4(1), 87-95.