Andrew Luebbert had a parrot tattooed on his left shoulder to celebrate his completion of basic training in the Navy. He found an artist to tattoo a solar system inside his forearm four years later before he left the Navy.
Luebbert, an audio production major, said the tattoos were therapeutic and helped keep him focused on who he was as a person.
“[The Navy] may make me this rigid person that follows orders when told, but I’m still going to show that I’ve got my spirit or a colorful personality,” Luebbert said. “They’re not gonna take that from me.”
Gabe Crenshaw is a psychologist and was a television personality for Ink Shrinks. The 2014 television show explored the connection between tattoos and mental health. Before agreeing to be on the show, Crenshaw researched whether tattoos could have legitimate therapeutic benefits.
He said he was not surprised to find that getting a tattoo can release endorphins, serotonin and norepinephrine. These chemicals can give a sense of calm and healing, according to
“Ironically, feeling the pain actually minimizes invasive pain that you can’t see,” Crenshaw said.
During the show, artists would tattoo and listen to their customer retell their traumatic experiences. Crenshaw said this dialogue has therapeutic effects because the pain of their experience and the pain of their tattoo work in tandem.
Crenshaw spoke with the customers after they got tattooed. They discussed the narrative of the trauma and Crenshaw said he helped them reframe it so that they would be able to draw strength.
“It’s no longer something that sidles them into the doldrums,” Crenshaw said. “They can actually derive strength. They find the places where they can conquer that feeling.”
Although Luebbert has not participated in therapeutic tattoo sessions as shown in Ink Shrinks, he said he sees the value in the process.
By retelling the story during a tattoo session, Crenshaw said the people carrying traumatic experiences are able to change the pattern of their story. He said through getting a tattoo of their pain, they are able to conquer it.
Eby Strauss-Barrett said she has friends who used tattoos as a way to show their escape from self harm. Strauss-Barrett’s tattoos do not have the same message, but they carry other meanings she said are important to her.
Two years ago, Strauss-Barrett said she made an impulsive decision to get a neck tattoo. The hamsa hand sits under her chin, and Strauss-Barrett said it represents spirituality and happiness.
Strauss-Barrett said her tattoos help with her self-confidence.
“I just feel more confident, and I think that’s the big thing for me,” Strauss-Barrett said. “I’m not scared to go out. I am who I am.”
Crenshaw clarified that tattoo sessions are not legitimate forms of therapy. While he said he believes in the therapeutic benefits tattoo sessions can serve, he does not think anything can take the place of talking to a licensed clinical psychologist.
Crenshaw said although the sessions are not licensed therapy, they can mimic a therapeutic process and act like cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Certainly not all therapists, not all psychologists agree,” Crenshaw said. “They still believe in this old notion that it’s quack therapy. But as I recall, people thought that about psychotherapy–and some still do–and we still are talking about Freud all these years later.”