The Body as Canvas

The Body as Canvas: Healing and Iconography
Dr. Simone Alter Muri

This study is a continuation of my previous research: The Body as Canvas: The Culture of Tattoos and College Students. The Body as Canvas: The Cultural Terrain of Tattoos and College Students” of 237 college students. Data analysis of a 45 item questionnaire showed significant differences exist the genders. College men and women had differences in the motivation, placement, and choice of symbols and levels of satisfaction of their tattoos. Also significant was that tattoos had healing properties for college students. (Alter-Muri, 2015).

The research study sought to explore whether a correlation exists between tattoos and healing. After receiving approval from the IRB, qualitative data is in the process of being collected through semi-structured interviews of three groups: 10 college students with tattoos, 10 tattoo artists and 10 art therapists who actively engaged their clients by discussing the metaphors or narratives in their clients tattoos or who created tattoo imagery in their sessions. Responses were of their tattoos or by creating tattoo imagery or discussing the narratives of their client’s tattoos in the sessions. Open and axial coding was applied to data collected. Data was also collected through a Likert scale questionnaire.

While data collection is not complete at this point in time, initial findings reveal that all three participant pools: college students who have a tattoo, tattoo artists and art therapists who explore tattoo imagery in their practice signify that tattoos have healing properties. College students reported obtaining tattoos as a marker of an event in their lives, an affirmation of self-identity and as a symbol of their independence.  Students reported that their tattoos served as a form of healing from a difficult time in their lives and were perceived as a symbol of resilience and self-identification. The majority of students also described that their tattoos, which were often done during a time of life transition prevented them from self-harm, and helped them to feel better about a situation in their lives. Participants agreed that their tattoos were a form of self-expression, with the majority of participants describing their tattoos as a means to reclaim and to feel better about themselves.

One of the main themes that emerged from the interview of art therapists and tattoo artists was that choosing a tattoo design or by transforming an existing tattoo into a new image enabled their clients to change a negative experience into a positive experience.  One participant claimed that their client’s  process of designing and drawing the tattoo was not just to express loss and grief over a relationship but to turn that feeling around and look at what was positive about that relationship and how to personally grow from that experience. Art therapists and tattoo artists assisted their clients in the design and discussion of possible tattoo imagery. The art therapists and tattoo artists also described that tattoos gave the individual a feeling of strength and resilience along with an identification of being a survivor. Another prominent theme that emerged from the data of both groups was that their clients believed that their tattoos represented powers beyond body art. Data from artists and art therapists further revealed that tattoos helped to avoid feelings of self-mutilation or suicide ideation. A concern by both groups was that individuals might expect their tattoos to serve as therapy beyond the actual power of the image.

While data collection is not yet complete, the current data suggests that art therapists can play a significant role in exploring the transformation of clients’ existing tattoos, helping the client reclaim body awareness by creating sketches that include words and images in a session on paper, and using the existing tattoo as a narrative in the therapeutic session.

Tattoo artists also discussed the prevalence of the semi colon tattoo as a recognized symbol of self-help. Representing a sentence that is not ending, this symbol was initially created in response to healing from a parent’s suicide and coping with suicidal thoughts.

Tattoos can be a means of self- reclamation and autobiography and allow individuals to discuss external images before they can realize their internal dynamics. Of particular interest that emerged in the process of the literature review is the “self help tattoo” and the relationship to the “do it yourself culture” exemplified by the predominance of “selfies”. Tattoos may allow therapists and clients to engage in discussions of personal narratives earlier on in the therapeutic relationship then clients who do not have tattoos. We live in an era where indirect communication is common and the relationship to others are less permanent. In a society where ambivalence is becoming common it is interesting that individuals are deciding to create permanent imagery on their body to make a personal statement.