I got my first tattoo at the age of twenty-one. I joined the growing 22% of Canadians who are tattooed, and for me, the experience was very emotional and rewarding. I was giving it to myself as a graduation gift for finishing university, which seemed appropriate as the quote was one that had helped me persevere and finish my degree. The quote, “come what may poof” was one that my grandmother used to say to me whenever I was particularly stressed or anxious. I had it tattooed on my forearm, a place where I would always be able to see it and written in my mom’s handwriting.
Naturally, reasons for getting tattoos vary from person to person and across cultures. In Canada however, the experience tends to fall into one of two categories: art and healing. “We call that ink therapy,” says one Toronto tattoo artist, who prefers to remain unnamed. “Whether it’s a mental issue, a health factor—some people struggle with certain things … and it helps them get through a rough moment in life.” Tattoos can help someone boost their self-confidence and make them feel more comfortable with their bodies.
Robert Ethier, a tattoo artist at the Black Pearl, shares his own experience with clients and their relationships with their bodies: “I think tattoos help people a lot. I definitely do see how people feel about themselves when they have it done.”
Founded in 2013, Project Semicolon became a major advocate for the healing power of tattoos. They are a not-for-profit mental health organization that supports those suffering with depression, addiction, suicide, and self-harm. As an organization, they’ve spurred a tattooing trend in which people tattoo semi-colons on their bodies as a sign of solidarity and healing. Often the image will be used to cover up scars from self-harm. The idea is that a semi-colon is a piece of punctuation used where an author could have stopped a sentence, but chose not to. It’s meant to symbolize a point when someone could have ended their life but didn’t.
The healing power of tattoos is strong. For many people, covering scars with a piece of art is a healing experience. “I’ve done a lot [of cover ups] of scars from cutting or surgeries,” says Ethier. “It takes the eye away from it, maybe gives something positive to look at instead.” The same can be said in general for most tattoos. Some people get memorial portraits of loved ones. Some get an image that has an important symbolic meaning to them. “Tattoos can, for a lot of various reasons, help people get up the next day,” agrees Anonymous Tattoo Artist.
Since my own inaugural tattoo, I have added three more. These ones don’t have quite the emotional weight as my first one, but they do something else for me. They make me feel good about my body.
Like many Canadians, I don’t always feel great about my body. About 20% of women have some form of dissatisfaction with their bodies, though some polls suggest the number is closer to 50%. The same holds true for men, though it is less discussed, at about 45% dissatisfaction with their bodies.
While I still struggle some days, my tattoos have really helped. It’s easier to care less that this bit jiggles and that bit bulges, when all you want to do is show off the beautiful piece of artwork on your chest or thigh. And tattoos are art. As Ethier points out, “just because the medium is what it is, doesn’t make it any less art.”