Tattoos: the new symbols of self-identity

By Kuheli Biswas

Tattoos are losing their prejudice as more and more people use the permanent art to symbolize self-expression.

The tattoo portrays self-identity. | Photography: Kuheli Biswas

For generations, tattoos have been used to symbolise a rite of passage or used in sacred rituals. Sub-Saharans believed that marking themselves permanently would protect them from evil spirits and Egyptologists believed that ancient Egyptian women used tattooing as a sign of fertility. But the act of permanently marking one’s body also has a dark history associated with it. Indonesian women used them to escape sexual slavery during world war II by marking themselves to prevent Japanese soldiers from raping them and the Nazis used permanent identification marks on concentration camp inmates. Even with the good and the bad connotations, today, more people are getting tattoos.

David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience, says that endorphins-related activities can lead to the release of endocannabinoids, a hormone that produces molecules similar to cannabis. Since endorphins and adrenaline rush is a major consequent of getting inked, people can get a natural but short-lived high from it. But for some tattoo lovers, etching the art on their skin is not about getting high but is a form of self-expression. Many associate the ink on their body with remembrance, self-identity, passion and the journey through life.

Emma Ford, 21, practised fine art as a child and saw it as the best form of self-expression, which leads her to her first tattoo at the age of 17. She said: “My interest in tattooing was a natural inclination towards just another form of art, a more permanent kind. It was just something that would make it easier for me to revisit certain memories and thoughts that define my identity today.”

Women face more prejudice for getting inked as it contravenes with the socially constructed ideals of beauty. Serena Jones, 24, said: “My dad flat out said that tattoos on women look trashy. But I eventually realised that each tattoo is individual to each person and I can do whatever I want with my body.”

A scabbing tattoo representing loss of childhood | Photography: Kuheli Biswas

Tattoos are also being used by the survivors of self-harming to redefine the marks that will forever by a reminder of their vulnerability and triggering moments. It gives autonomy over one’s body as it gives a second chance to people who wish to move past their physical scars. A study by Viren Swami found that tattooed people associate the experience of having a tattoo with extraversion, sensation seeking, self-esteem, and uniqueness in identity.

Michelle Sawyer, 26, said: “I see them as a part of my life at the moment I got them. Whether or not they have deep meaning, there’s a reason why I got them and why I love them. Even though they can be expensive, I try to get them when they’re the most relevant in my life. It’s nice to look back and remember who I was at that moment.”

“I was always interested in art and I couldn’t find a better place than my body to get something permanently drawn that inspires me to become what I’ve always dreamt of,” said Aditya Sharma, 23. Sharma’s first tattoo of a giant cross surrounded by religious symbols and cardinal directions signifies his love for the world and boundlessness in belief.

Tattoos such as the semicolon popularised by Amy Bleuel, the founder of the semicolon project has become a symbol of resistance against suicide, depression and other mental health issues. Unfortunately, Bleuel passed away in 2017 from the very thing she was trying to save people from — suicide.

Other symbolism such as the equal sign has become a mark for equality among the LGBTQ community and the ampersand sign signifies union or friendship. Nicole Howard, 30 said: “I tend to want tattoos the most when there’s been something that has really impacted me emotionally or some feat I feel like I overcame. It’s a way of showing how proud I am of myself and my resilience. It’s almost therapeutic.”

Tattoos have also been used widely to mask mastectomy scars and reclaim the part of their body that they lost with beautiful art. Many patients of mastectomy have found inking their scars have improved self-esteem and given a boost of confidence. Sue, a former breast cancer survivor’s testimony to the Breast Cancer Now charity best explains the emotion behind the mastectomy tattoos: “My tattoo represents my struggle with aggressive disease and how I have been able to overcome this, growing and changing to reclaim the beauty in my life.”

Maya Sengupta, 26 said: “I had little human interactions as a child and did not have many people to share my stories with. So, I captured them in designs to remind me of the times when I evolved, accomplished something or simply discovered a piece of myself.”

A former depression, suicidal ideation and anxiety patient, Eric Johnson said: “It is okay not to stress out about my career or how much money I make or even what people will think if I don’t do certain things as they want me to. I got my ‘you are enough’ ink to remind myself that I don’t need to pressure myself and that I will get where ever I want to go but at my own pace. It has been a huge help and every day when I see it in the mirror it automatically relaxes me.”

Rosalind Daniels, a tattoo artist from Arizona explains: “I, personally, am always really happy to help someone move on with their life. Wearing scars in highly visible places like firearms and wrists can hold people back more than tattoos a lot of the time. No one wants to get the negative attention self-harm scars can bring. The questions. The elephant in the room. Having a beautiful tattoo there can also discourage the action in the future if need be.”

Ford summarises with: “My identity is rare and the tattoos remind me that I should be proud of it.”

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