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Tattoos, secret spilling and the concept of ink therapy

Words by Alice Snape
Tattoo by Dolly @dollytattoos
Tattoo by Dolly @dollytattoos

Getting tattooed is a powerful act, perhaps you use it as a way to reclaim your body or work through grief or trauma. But can the process itself be classed as therapy?

Occasionally, we might find ourselves sharing our innermost thoughts with our tattoo artists – but should we? And if we shouldn’t, what if we can't help it? Is there something about the pain of getting tattooed that unlocks a filter? And when does sharing a past experience cross a line…?

There's a particular kind of feeling that comes at the end of a long session of getting tattooed. I’m familiar with it now, perhaps you are too… My skin is burning and my mind goes all hazy and is jumbled with half-formed fragments of thoughts. But I don't recognise them as my own. I can't quite reach them. Like somehow I’ve detached from my body and my mind is floating somewhere beyond me. Sometimes the words escape from my mouth before I have a chance to catch them… hold on, what did I just say? I whisper to my tattoo artist. Perhaps I’ve let a secret slip out or an emotion or memory I’ve long buried or something more abstract that I’m not even sure I meant…

I decided to start researching this feature in the most scientific of ways – I asked a question on my Instagram Stories, “Have you ever said anything that you hadn’t intended while you’re getting tattooed?” And I got hundreds of responses. From asking what year it is in a hazy fug to admitting wanting to steal housemates’ dead plants to make a plant graveyard… things can occasionally get weird.

But more than that, some collectors have revisited traumatic moments – sexual assault, misscarriage, abortion, death – from their past and tell the tattoo artist about them, without really intending to. This is what happened to Laura. She was just getting to the end of a really long session, she’d been under the needle for hours and hadn’t really meant to say what ended up coming out of her mouth. She felt like she was high or in some sort of hallucinatory state. And the words spilled out before she’d even had a chance to process them.

The tattoo artist is permanently marking your body - "they already have our trust"

Letting go of ego

Here’s the thing, there might actually be a reason the half-formed thoughts in our brains somehow make their way out during a tattoo session. "We need to trust in someone who’s effectively causing us pain," says therapist and founder of Self Space, Jodie Cariss. Rationally, of course, we know this is our choice, "but we still need to believe that this person will take care of us, has our interests at heart and is in tune with us." Jodie explains that this is how we cope with the pain.

But, there’s also another layer to it, the tattoo artist is permanently marking your body. In that sense, "they already have our trust, therefore sharing ourselves in other ways is easier," explains Jodie, "we feel intimately connected and in letting ourselves go to them in some ways means that all other defences become less firm, so verbal streams of consciousness, intimate confiding and general letting go of thoughts and feelings is much more likely."

"We need to trust in someone who’s effectively causing us pain"

Jodie explains that the ego defence is lowered in times where we have to let go. "The ego is the thing that separates consciousness for our unconscious thoughts," she says, “so as this is lowered things might come out of our mouths that aren’t even fully formed into conscious ideas for ourselves yet – which might surprise us."

There are other times this can happen, too. "After sex, for example, or when we’re sharing good feelings after surviving something with someone else, when we first wake up or when we feel sick or unwell or more vulnerable,” says Jodie, “all those situations put us in a similar state."

TMI and oversharing

Tattoo artist Dolly (@dollytattoos), who owns The Dollhouse in Brighton (@thedollhousebtn), says that people tell her all sorts. "There's a lot of, ‘I probably shouldn't tell you this’ or ‘I don't know why I'm telling you this’ moments," she shares. Sometimes Dolly’s clients open up in the first five minutes of their appointments – "like an instant sort of release,” says Dolly – for others, it takes a few hours to come out. "Clients have told me about affairs, bad relationships, work drama, friend drama, emotional trauma, family trauma…" Dolly believes there's a sort of mental unlocking that happens when a needle breaks the skin – "a physical release of sorts but also your body goes into shock and tries to protect itself from what's happening – when we're in shock, we spill the beans," says Dolly.

There’s also something about opening up to someone who isn’t intricately involved in your personal world. "Getting tattooed means you’re removed from the demands of everyday life," says Dolly. “In the same way people often offload onto hairdressers and beauticians, sometimes people need someone to vent that they don’t see all the time, and sometimes people just need to talk through the pain and fill the silence."

Tattoo by Dolly @dollytattoos

Is ink therapy actually a thing?

Dolly’s customer Lucy has noticed she often seeks out a tattoo at times when she’s feeling stressed or when something upsetting or uncertain has happened in her life. "It brings me comfort and confidence," she explains. "I tell Dolly everything."

On a personal level, Dolly says that getting tattooed has helped her work through some of her own trauma. "My blast-over bodysuit helped me reclaim my body and gave me back the autonomy I thought I'd lost forever," she says. Dolly also feels grounded when she gets tattooed, in a similar way to when she has acupuncture. "It makes you so present and in the moment, and if you're naturally an anxious fight-or-flight kind of person, tattooing is a true test of that sentiment, which can be very healing in itself," she concludes.

"My blast-over bodysuit helped me reclaim my body," says tattoo artist Dolly

Tattoo artist Tina Lugo has posted about the concept of "ink therapy" on her Instagram account, she explains that this term was usually reserved for those getting scars covered with tattoos or transforming a negative experience into a positive one. But increasingly people are starting to see the power of tattooing to get over all sorts of things in their lives – depression, grief, or just as a new beginning. She says that tattoos can open new neural pathways in the brain and lead to emotional healing.

Crossing a line

But Tina warns that getting personal can easily turn into "trauma dumping". She notes that you should ask before talking about "triggering content." Consent is key – this works both ways. And that "tattoos are not a replacement for actual therapy."


Tattoo artist Jane* also thinks there’s a line and that it’s difficult because often artists aren’t trauma informed to be able to deal with the heavy stuff. "We’re not counsellors or therapists, but I do understand why clients feel comfortable enough to share, because we’re working in a very private space," she says, "I’ve got a list of safe spaces I direct clients to if they’re needing help. So they still feel heard." But she’d never want a client to hold anything in – she wants them to feel safe. "I’ve never felt burdened by it," she says, in fact she’s honoured. 

Tattoo artist Danni Booth (@dannibeetattoo) has even looked into doing a counselling course after conversations during sessions have got deep. "Whether it's loss, things like misscarriage, types of grief, self harm, abuse, I just let them roll with it and feel privileged to have that safe space with a client where they can speak and feel vulnerable or even empowered by what they have overcome," says Danni, who thinks it’s amazing to play a part in the journey towards healing.

Tattoo artist Danni Booth desinged this star tattoo for a customer who'd had a miscarriage

It’s totally understandable that some tattoo artists feel like it's not their responsibility to deal with their customer’s outpourings, but can it ever really be that black and white? Especially when it comes to something as special as getting tattooed – there's a level of intimacy and magic and trust that just doesn't seem to apply to other things.

Because, at the heart of it, pain can be transformative. As Dolly puts it: "There’s something about the physical act of persevering through pain and ultimately healing and revealing a new version of yourself – one that never previously existed or a version of you that was just waiting to be seen."

*Names have been changed