The word “addiction” is tossed around a lot when it comes to tattoos. Some people say that the drive to acquire body art is addictive while others say it fails to meet the true definition of an addiction, calling it simply a passion. The debate calls into question the very nature of addiction, can addiction be psychological or must it contain a physiological element of chemical dependence? Because when it comes to tattoos, there are several psychological, physiological and even social elements which could contribute to an addiction. If we are willing broaden our definition of “addiction” than what facets of the tattooing process could become addictive? Here are 17 physical, mental and situational attributes of the world of tattooing that under some circumstances could prove addicting.
For most people tattoos are a form of personal expression. A flower on the ankle, an anchor (which is actually a symbol of protection for sailors) on the forearm, and infinite other representations of meaningful imagery. The reasons for getting a tattoo varies as much from person to person as the images they choose. However the scientific process the body undergoes during the process is largely the same. One third of the human nervous system is known as the “Sympathetic Nervous System” this is the part responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response, which includes releasing adrenaline in response to pain.
In their FAQ section a Tattoo parlor discusses what to expect while getting a tattoo citing the adrenaline rush that can be anticipated. The 20th century saw the introduction of the concept of being an “Adrenaline junkie” a person whose relentless pursuit of an adrenaline rush leads them into high risk situations with the hopes of stimulating the release of adrenaline. People have widely acknowledged the existence of adrenaline addiction making it one of the most likely culprits in causing an addiction to tattoos.
Unlike their cousin adrenaline, which is produced in the renal glands, endorphins flood the body directly from the brain. These chemicals produced in the pituitary gland are our natural pain relievers. That’s why, while receiving a tattoo, endorphins flood the body in response to the pain caused by the needles. The effects of endorphins, powerful, they are also associated with other activities that create a natural “high” like exercise and orgasms. The force of this chemical reaction can lead to an increased drive and even an addiction to getting tattoos in order to repeat the experience, and receive another dose of endorphins.
Pain Substitution/Self Mutilation
The pain of being tattooed might also be the intoxicating element that draws an individual in time and time again. The medical and rehab community is more widely acknowledging self-mutilation and self-injury as a form of addiction. Those who engage in this practice often find a sense of control when causing themselves pain, finding it therapeutic to use physical pain in an attempt to relieve emotional or mental stress. It is possible that some have become addicted to self-injury in the form of tattoos. Finding their only solace through the pain of the tattoo needle and as a result getting addicted to getting tattoos.
Attention/ Social interaction
Many people with tattoos immediately take offense to the notion of tattoos being a form of attention seeking. But even some hard core defenders of body art will concede that in some cases, someone’s tats may be a cry for attention. While they are easily comparable to certain other forms of creative expression, like blue hair or facial piercing, the permanent and painful nature of tattoos puts them in a slightly different category. For someone who craves attention, positive or negative, it is at least possible they may feel addicted to tattoos for the attention they can bring.
Anyone with a visible tattoo can attest that their tattoo has, at some point, served as a conversation starter with a stranger. For someone struggling with breaking down interpersonal barriers, getting tattooed could feel like an effective method of facilitating social interactions that might otherwise feel impossible. In these cases, the need for acknowledgement and connection could drive the need to get tattooed.
The vast majority of people who have body art will tell you that for them it is a form of self expression. Each tattoo has a meaning which is significant to the person who has it; even if in some cases that meaning is as simple as “I thought it was beautiful/cool/bad ass”. Regardless of the intent behind the ink, the owner finds it possible to use artwork on their bodies as a satisfying way of expressing who they believe themselves to be on this inside. It is not uncommon for some people to feel hindered and inhibited by other forms of communication, speaking, writing or other creative pursuits. If these cases, it is not impossible that the need to get tattooed could be fueled by that feeling that this is the only outlet through which their inner self can be displayed to the outside world.
The growing cultural acceptance or body art combined with increasing media exposure has created an insurgence of tattoo related art and artists. There is an ever expanding sector of tattoo culture which is comprised of the artists who consider the human body to be their medium. It is not uncommon for artists of any kind to exhibit signs of addiction when it comes to practicing their art. One successful art advisor examines the artist’s fixation describing how an artist may suffer from withdrawal like symptoms when deprived of the opportunity to produce their work. Tattoo recipients may also feel that, even if the work is executed by a professional, their tattoos are an expression of their own artistic visions. If painters and sculptors can exhibit signs of addiction to their art, it stands to reason tattoo artists, and tattoo aficionados could also feel a pull that resembles addiction when it comes to getting tattoos.
As much as certain tattooing rituals may symbolize rites of passage or the inclusion in a group or society, others tattoos represent an attempt to do the opposite. In some cases tattoos may be a form of rebellion, and not just for teenagers. This tattoo enthusiast describes several symbols which are particularly representative of rebellion including pirate and confederate flags. These symbols are representatives of two groups comprised of individuals considered rebels and outlaws of their time. Many modern versions of these icons are still often associated with an endorsement of rebellion against society. In other cases, regardless of the image depicted in the tattoo, the location or just the very presence of the tattoo exemplifies a non-conformist attitude. Activists for many causes often appear so utterly dedicated to a cause that their single-mindedness resembles obsession or addiction. For those whose chosen method of activism is body modification; their relentless pursuit of additional tattoos is their outcry against the norm. Though uncommon, it is possible that these attempts to defy the proletariat could potentially reach a level that be construed as addiction.
The art of tattoo is about as old as religion itself. Mummies, from 300 BC were found to have animal tattoos on their bodies. For thousands of years tattoos have been used as a form of religious dedication. The uses of tattoos in spirituality are actually surprisingly global, Japanese tattoo artists consider their work to bring about spiritual awakenings.
While in North America many tribes used tattoos as a way of connecting with the spirit world. In modern society, people still use body art to express devotion to their beliefs, through the imprinting of religious icons. Although for many, it isn’t about the art as much as the experience; they find the act of getting tattooed itself can be highly spiritual. One woman describes her experience selecting and receiving her first tattoo. She explains how the process of getting the tattoo was more important than the actual resulting image, because the experience is self was about letting go of a previous life and embracing her new identity. Religion and spirituality has taken on numerous forms in the modern world. Reasons and ways each of use chooses to worship are sacred and different we. For those who have found a way to their spirituality through the art of tattoo, the act of body modification itself could be akin to prayer. They my find themselves compelled in an almost addictive manner to return to what they consider their church and their path to spiritual fulfillment.
Aside from sweeping stereotypical generalizations is there really a link between tattoos and substance abuse? Some studies may indicate a slim possibility that individuals, in this case psychiatric inpatients, with tattoos are more likely to suffer from antisocial personality disorder, suicide attempts and substance abuse. Another drug rehab postulates that a rising use of heroin in many younger people stems from a cultural propensity toward other needle based activities, such as piercing and tattooing. However, these claims only represent small, highly specialized, population samples and they don’t really shed much light on an association between tattoos and other kinds of addiction. Another growing trend shows many individuals on the road to recovery branding themselves with sobriety tattoos as a part of their rehabilitation.
These vague connections between tattoos and substance abuse are tenuous at best, but it is at least possible that getting inked could be a pre-curser to some additions or an epilogue to others. In certain cases the feelings incurred by the acquisition of a tattoo could possibly serve as a replacement for sensations previously garnered through another form of addiction.
We all have vices, coping mechanisms, ways to deal with our own negative feelings however they might manifest themselves. Could tattoos be considered a form of therapy? For some people a tattoo holds far deeper meaning than just self-expression. They can be a way of attempting to undo past wrongs or a means purging negative emotions. For one transgendered individual, tattoos aren’t a means of social acceptance, but a form of identity. While physically transforming from a woman into a man, he was able to calm his inner turmoil by modifying his outer skin. It’s possible that, finding solace through the process of getting tattooed could become somewhat addictive. For a person reluctant to pursue more traditional forms of therapy, or lacking in a personal support system the therapeutic qualities of body modification could become a compelling substitute.
For most people, collecting is a simple hobby that produces enjoyment. People may collect anything from dolls, to stamps to bottle caps, literally anything that fascinates the hobbyist. But in some cases the need to collect can become a compulsion. In this case many individuals, who view themselves as collectors of tattoos, could in some ways become addicted to increasing their collection. One theory, suggests that it is not uncommon for collectors to find themselves, trying and failing to give up collecting, sacrificing work or personal relationships in favor of collecting. These kinds of behaviors are similar to signs of many other kinds of addiction. If a person considers themselves a collector of tattoos they could easily fall victim to the same kind of obsession that some other collectors may succumb to as well.
Recently cosmetic surgery addiction has garnered headlines, so why not cosmetic tattoos? It’s widely known that celebrities such as Michael Jackson have had these types of procedures done, and to those who crave outward beauty, tattooing your eyebrows can be as common as your shots of Botox 4 times a year. It has the same side effects and infection risks as getting a tattoo anywhere else on your body, leading one to believe it is even safer than most cosmetic procedures that might include injections, lasers, and surgery. The quest for beauty, in America especially, has in itself become a cultural addiction. This is simply another representation of that mentality. Experimenting with one form of cosmetic tattoo could easily lead to a compulsion to explore additional forms of cosmetic ink.
Though perhaps not inclusive of everyone who bears body ink, a thriving tattoo culture exists. Many people who have multiple tattoos may perceive their ink to be one of the defining elements of their identity and these individuals comprise a sub-culture within society. The allure of this culture has been explored by many, and some experts define tattoo culture as a distinctive community that is characterized by tattoo enthusiasts that, through tacit understandings and shared experiences have formed a strong bond with one another. The desire to belong to this kind of community, particularly if an individual were to feel ostracized by others, could in its own way contribute to feelings of being addicted to tattoos. One might find themselves driven to continue expanding their collection of body art as a method of repeated dedication, or induction to the tattoo culture.
While the tattooed have formed a sub-culture of their own, tattoos have been integral parts of many cultures since ancient times. Many cultures practice the art of tattooing for both spiritual and ritualistic reasons. They can also classify people into specific religious, social, or political groups. Several African Tribes tattoo women’s faces after they’ve given birth to a male child, and males may receive painful tattoos and other type of body mutilation to prove their masculinity. In these cases, the art of tattoo is regarded as essential or requisite. Similarly, an addiction often comes with the conviction that a substance or act is a matter of necessity. Even in western culture many individuals choose to get tattoos which identify their heritage with flags, family crests or other iconic imagery. This inclination to pay homage to one’s culturally history, heritage or ancestry could feed an already addictive inclination toward tattoos.
Some groups seem to have a preponderance of tattoos, in some cases because they are a requirement of membership and in others because they simply represent like-mindedness. This tends to be the case particularly, in prisons, biker groups or gangs where a tattoo of some kind might be mandatory. In these cases the accrual of additional tattoos could be an indication of a driving need to re-dedicate to the group or even an attempt to rise within the ranks. In these rare cases the obsession or pressure associated with being part of a specific group could fuel a kind of addiction.