When Ariel Carroll went in for her latest tattoo—one of ten decorating her petite frame—she brought a poem she had written, a collage, and music for meditation. She asked tattoo artist Philip Milic to "create with intention." He knew just what to do. What resulted is a full back design, beginning at the base of her spine, extending up to her shoulder blades where the outstretched wings of an angel cover her upper back in an embrace. It had been a year since the friend who called her "angel" died in a fire, a tragic accident Carroll couldn’t quite process while caring for two babies, moving to a new city, and grappling with emotional trauma she had buried inside since her childhood. "We had that in common [a history of abuse], and when we found each other, it was an instant connection," she says of the friend. "We were helping each other through it all. And then he was just gone."
Carroll wanted a tattoo to memorialize her friend, but she says the process has given her so much more. As she winced at the pain of the tattoo gun—yes, it almost always hurts—her internal wounds began to heal. "Getting out of your head and into your body is profound," says Carroll, a poet and mother of two who lives in Sacramento, California. "Whenever you suffer through something physical and come out the other side, it helps you deal with emotional pain. And then you're left with a permanent reminder to keep feeling."
Tattoos—once the purview of bikers, punks, and rebellious 18-year-olds—have circled back into symbols for wellness, a nod to tattooing's history as a spiritual and tribal practice, dating back millennia. Nowadays, tattoo artists have a heightened awareness of the process itself, whether it's imparting a healing touch, integrating music and crystals for a higher vibrational experience, or making sure the ink is non-toxic. Tattoo artists like Brooklyn-based Minka Sicklinger offer ritual tattoo sessions, sometimes partnering with spiritual healers and Tarot readers. Milic, who inked Carroll's back tattoo, considers tattooing a form of healing contact, akin to Reiki. While it's common now for people to ink their mantras on their wrists and for those who've lost loved ones to add initials to intricate tattoo designs, the process of piercing the flesh with an indelible mark can also help many people heal from emotional and physical pain.
"I cannot think of another medium of personal expression and meaning that is so intimately connected to our bodies and memories," says Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist and research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. "The desire to adorn, commemorate, heal, self-identify, empower, and inscribe personal history via tattoo has always been a part of being human." In fact, the practice is one of the earliest health rituals we know of, used for thousands of years by Polynesian cultures in Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, and beyond to represent spiritual wellness and physical strength.
And the benefits are more than skin-deep. There's the placebo effect: Believe something will help, and it does. "Feelings of hope can reduce stress and create a positive outlook, which has been documented to help healing," says Anna Friedman, a tattoo historian and the director of the Center for Tattoo History and Culture, a research organization. On the physical side, pain via tattoo needle sparks the release of endorphins. "Some people feel a type of high after getting tattooed," she says.
While endorphins are a powerful mood-booster, it's the permanence of tattoos that can serve as a lifeline for others. Renée Fabian, for example, tattooed the most vulnerable parts of her body—her arms—to protect herself from herself. Fabian started cutting after being sexually abused by a teacher in high school. By pressing a blade into her skin, she felt relief from feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide.
After Fabian got her first tattoo—a butterfly design that covers scars on her wrist—she felt a healing process take shape. "A light bulb went off," says Fabian, a writer who lives in Los Angeles. "It's in a place I see every day, protecting valuable real estate. This is something that could help me." Her eventual goal is to cover both arms (the only place she cuts) with full-sleeve tattoos. By masking her scars with permanent ink, she's rebranding herself. "I'm taking this life that is completely bogged down by PTSD and mental health issues and regaining control," she says.
For artists like Sicklinger, playing a role in this process is a privilege. "I feel a connection to every single client, regardless of their reason for coming in," she says. "As the client moves through physical pain and fear of commitment [to a permanent tattoo]—which is a powerful experience in itself—I take that journey with them."
Pretty in Ink
Long after the needle is put away and the scars begin to heal, tattoos can continue to boost their bearer's self-image—a key component of mental health. Milic, whose Old Crow Tattoo shop in Oakland is filled with crystals and altars, recalls a client who spent years hiding her legs out of insecurity before coming to him for a solution. He created intricate designs on both legs that included symbols of power, confidence, and beauty. "Immediately there was a huge shift in how she presented herself to the world," Milic says. "She can’t not show off her legs now, and she just radiates confidence."
The journey to feeling transformed by a tattoo can take years, sometimes forever. Carroll's back tattoo—which has required five visits with Milic and 25 hours so far—isn't finished. It's an evolving process, much like its owner's healing. "I don't think I'll know the whole impact this tattoo will have on me until it's done," Carroll says. "Right now it's fragmented because I'm not all the way put back together either. But knowing that it's there, I definitely feel better."