trigger warning

This article / post may be triggering for some, it mentions childhood trauma, abusive relationships and mental illness. Please respect your needs in relation to these topics and make the choice to read or not to read this article in line with your needs in this moment. If you are triggered by anything written about here, please reach out to someone who can provide support. If in Australia, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

I call "BULLSHIT!"

The idea of tattoos being a form of self-harm had never occurred to me until I was in a psychiatrist’s office and they asked me about my tattoos and what was happening in my life when I got them. I want to tell you about my tattoos and what they represent to me, and let you decide whether they are a form of self-harm and an unhealthy practice, or simply a form of self-expression and perhaps even empowerment that should be celebrated, not shamed.


I got my very first tattoo when I was living in America. I never thought I would ever be the kind of person (whatever kind of person that is) to have tattoos. I thought about it for some time and came up with a tribal design, although to be honest I wasn’t totally happy with it, but I wanted a tattoo. My reasons for wanting a tattoo included wanting something for me, and only me. It would be something that my husband (at the time, thankfully no longer) wouldn’t be able to make me return for a refund. It was to prove that I was strong, and I could put up with pain, that I had control over my body and I had control over my life and the choices I made. I think in some way I was trying to tell him that he couldn’t hurt me anymore. I had discovered my strength and wanted to demonstrate it. I hadn’t realised how strong I was until I had fallen so far and learnt how to get back up. I hadn’t realised how many people had my back, and when I did, I felt stronger, I felt worthy. Later I learnt these reasons were an indication of deeper problems in my marriage. Now I’m happy this tattoo is on my lower back, so I don’t have to see it.


Wow…this one is something that I had thought about and played with designing for years (about 3-4) …from when my marriage went to shit, to years after when I had moved back to Australia. I ummed and ahhed about it because I wasn’t sure I wanted a reminder of dark times…but I guess it’s how you choose to look at it…I see it as a show of gratitude, not as a reminder of dark times. I was worried about what people would think…I was worried people would see it and judge me. I was particularly worried about how my colleagues working in mental health would think of it, and me. For me, this tattoo represents what, or rather who kept me alive when I was at the lowest moment I have ever been in (touch wood). It is a reminder of all the pain, but it is mostly a reminder of all the good things that emerged during that period of my life. It’s a reminder of who helped me heal. It’s a reminder of the countless people who were there for me and who still are. People who have helped shape who I am today and who hold the most incredible values. People who I look up to and hold dear, you know who you are.

my third tattoo

This one was a bit spur of the moment, I admit, and again lots of emotional stuff was happening for me at the time….including, I think, seeing that psychiatrist I mentioned earlier. I had been in a year long abusive long-distance relationship and then on the rebound had a very intense passionate but short-lived relationship. While in the intense relationship, I had joked I would get a tattoo of sparrows with that guy’s name in one (I would never do that). He was an alcoholic who seemed to forget all the things he would passionately talk to me about in the evenings the night before…questioning my sense of reality and making me feel crazy…not unlike the long-distance relationship. This tattoo was almost in defiance…a little bit like my first. It was an awakening that I had neglected myself and I needed to put myself first. It represents that I am a strong woman, and no-one can tell me what I can and can’t do! It was the rising of my inner warrior and fighting spirit, acknowledging my own worth.

My fourth and fifth tattoos

My fourth and fifth tattoos were done in close succession. Ironically, these were done 10 years later at the same tattoo parlour in America as my very first tattoo. I returned to America to visit those amazing people who had supported me in my darkest days and continue to support me. These tattoos were planned, like my second tattoo and they mean so much to me. The one above represents love for everyone, love for myself, love for creativity and colour, and support of people in the LGBTIQ community.

The one below is a reconnection to my younger self. Wonder Woman was my idol as a child, she could make people tell the truth with her lasso. I had believed she could save me from my abuser and make people see what was happening. She was female power and strength personified. She was everything I wanted to grow up to be. This tattoo was about honouring myself, my childhood (good and bad) and having the strength and courage to move through so much pain and heartache. It chokes me up just writing about it. Can you see a theme here? I can. My tattoos represent my passion, my strength and inner warrior.

I’m sure I’m not unlike other people out there who have tattoos because of significant life changing events. We often want to get a tattoo to commemorate an event, person, belief or value that we hold, something that is important to us. I know people who have tattoos that represent a fight against illness (cancer, auto immune diseases, mental illness) or to show solidarity to certain population groups (LGBTIQ, Autism).

If tattoos are a form of self-harm, when is it considered this and when is it not? Self-harm is often not something that is well thought out or planned, but rather spur of the moment…maybe that’s why the psychiatrist thought for me it was self-harm…at the time, two out of the three tattoos I had were relatively spur of the moment, or at least not properly thought out, that and I wasn’t in a great headspace when I got them.

I’m still going to call “bullshit” on this notion! I think it’s just another thing that is being pathologized and stigmatised by the medical profession. It’s saying there is something wrong with us, when we’re trying our best to deal with difficult situations. We get through them the best we can. If a tattoo helps you transition through a difficult time, and makes you feel empowered and it’s not self-harm, then by all means…get a tattoo. EXPRESS YOURSELF!

A tattoo can be an expression of self-empowerment and not self-harm

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