Therapy—a word symmetrical with today’s modern society. Everyone is aware of the term, even most children, and we all understand that it is a common practice which helps people cope with rough times or simply better themselves in the long run. For some, it can reignite and save a marriage; for others, it allows them to face their fears and traumas and move on.
When you think of the word therapy, while your brain may flick through several different formats, you may be missing one key style of this widely accepted coping mechanism: the tattoo. Therapy is defined as “the treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process,” with a secondary definition of “a curative power or quality.” However, it is the third definition of this Greek-based word that I want to analyze today. According to Dictionary.com, the third—and perhaps, the most interesting—definition of the word therapy is “any act, hobby, task, program, etc., that relieves tension.”
By this fascinating definition, therapy can pretty much consist of anything, correct? An act, hobby, task, or program could relate to anything from a psychological program operated by a medically approved facility or it could be something much simpler. For example, I’m a writer. For me, the written word presents an opportunity to release my stress, my feelings. I can disappear into my fictional stories, detail out my aggression or pour my tears onto the page. I can take a break from reality by researching historical events or styles of tattoos; submerging myself into books and internet pages. For others, painting or music works much the same. Some people knit, bake, or use physical fitness to deal with their issues—whether physical or emotional.
Looking at this proclaimed method of therapy, is it any surprise that the practice of tattooing should be added to the roster?
In 2013, the online magazine entitled YesWeekly published a piece that focuses on just this topic. They detailed the story of a man named Otto Long, who at the time was a fifty-five-year-old man who suffered great emotional and physical pain throughout his life. He lost everything from his wife to his own legs over the course of his life, but he didn’t let that get him down. According to YesWeekly, Long has the majority of his beaten and battered body tattooed, and for good reason. While reading the story, you discover that Long was injured in a severe car accident, damaging his legs so badly that they had to be removed. His wife left him shortly after and he turned to alcohol as a means to cope. During his alcoholism, he discovered tattooing, and with the help of his tattoo artist buddy—adequately named Little John—he beat the disease, and turned his focus to body ink as a method of dealing with his inner and outer struggles.
There is a quote from the article that really struck me. Long tells the online magazine’s reporter, “John used to say that I got tattoos to get rid of my demons, and I kind of feel that way.” He goes on, explaining to the reporter that he truly believes his tattoos extended his life.
Long is not the only one using tattoos as a coping mechanism. In fact, the idea is so popular, that in 2014, SpikeTV aired its standout show called Ink Shrinks. The show is based on the concept that body ink can be an effective tool in dealing with both physical and emotional traumas, phobias, and many other forms of afflictions. The show utilized a board-certified psychologist and a front-running tattoo artist who partnered together to create a therapy process which would allow the individual to begin the healing process. The tattoo was designed by the artist in full collaboration with the psychologist and was applied without the wearer being allowed to see it beforehand. Once revealed, the tattoo would stand as a reminder of how far they had come in surpassing their issues. In an interview with Inked Magazine, Sarah Miller, tattoo artist for the show, stated, “I thought it would be really interesting to showcase a more positive and amazing side to tattooing because it is healing people who have problems; it really helps them.”
But Sarah Miller, SpikeTv, and Otto Long are not the only ones who have discovered the appeal of tattoo therapy; nor is our generation. Tattooing as a therapeutic method has been occurring from the dawn of time. . . or at least, as far back as we have been able to uncover.
If you haven’t heard of Otzi, you really should check him out. This guy rules when it comes to tattoos; even more when you discover why he was actually doing it in the first place. Otzi, also referred to as the ‘Iceman’ was located on the Austrian-Italian border in the 1990s. His perfectly preserved body bore the markings of over fifty-one unique, strategically placed tattoos and dated as 5,200 years of age. At first, historians were unsure of what to make of his clearly thought out body markings, but over further examination, they discovered that the man’s artwork wasn’t actually artwork. . . but instead a form of physical therapy. An early acupuncture, if you will.
Otzi’s fifty-one tattoos were each placed directly over parts of the body that displayed the most internal wear and tear. These locations included lower spine, knees, ankle and wrist joints, et cetera. As they continued to examine this exquisite specimen, they discovered that he showed clear signs of degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis and obvious joint damage. Later in history, Egyptian women tattooed their lower abdomens which has been theorized to aid in the relief of menstrual and childbirth pains.
Regardless of how much we grow as a species, we humans continue to find our way back to the art of tattooing as a method of both emotional and physical coping. Although many, many years separate us all, we still find the relief, and perhaps the pleasure, in utilizing tattoos as a method of personal and internal growth, as well as a means of individuality and freedom of expression. Next time you find yourself facing an issue, internal or external, that you believe is too great to deal with alone, perhaps find your way to your nearest tattoo parlor. In addition to getting a great piece of art, most artists make for great listeners.