Psychology behind Tattoos
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Psychology behind Tattoos


Inked expressions, commonly known as tattoos, are one of the main elements of pop culture. Irrespective of how western it seems, the history behind tattooing dates back to several thousand years ago. Although its history varies among different sources, what is commonly suggested is, it was mainly performed as a religious practice, used as a part of criminal proceedings, and rarely for aesthetic purposes in ancient times.

Throughout history, certain emperors and religions prohibited it, but the practice persisted and expanded as a custom in Eastern and Western countries throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity grew and fell over time for various reasons, most commonly involving social norms (Altunay et al., 2021). What common people know about tattooing and body art is far less, but what remains under-known is of great interest to psychologists and even the readers find it intriguing.

Psychosocial Perspective

A widely known sociological theory called Symbolic Interactionism can be used to explain the psychosocial perspective behind tattoos. This theory suggests that social beings carry their everyday interactions through interpretations of symbols that include language, non-verbal gestures, objects, art, music, etc. Individuals tend to attach subjective meaning to these symbols. 

Tattoos serve as such symbols that are used to communicate beliefs, affiliations, or experiences to the social world. For example, a semicolon tattoo (;) symbolically represents one’s choice to continue living, despite one’s experience of struggles like depression, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. Just like it is used in writing to indicate a pause in a sentence, it alludes to the pause in one’s life journey rather than choosing to end it. In addition to this, since these are ‘symbols’, their meaning can change over time, and one symbol (tattoo) can have different meanings for different people (Gumus, 2019). 

Read More: Suicide Awareness: Unveiling the Truth

The ‘Why’ Behind Tattooing

Common motivations behind acquiring a tattoo are often wide-ranging and unique to each individual. These can be listed as follows (Altunay et al. 2021; Dhumal & Patole, 2024; Khosla et al. 2010)—

  • As a Fashion Statement: With an urge to follow trends to beautify the body and make it more attractive, tattoos have gained a lot of prominence, especially in recent years. Bodily decoration is also one common motive to get tattoos, especially for players.
  • Self-Identity or Individualisation: Adolescents and young adults are most likely to get tattooed as these stages are often marked by identity crises. Being seen as a mediator to draw attention and as a statement of individuality, it can highlight self-identity.
  • Self-Expression and Self-Acceptance: When words fall short, tattoos are often used to express inner thoughts and feelings. These are like indirect outlets for personal stories. Tattoos also act as symbols of self-acceptance by providing a tangible representation of personal growth and milestones. The semicolon tattoo is one such example.
  • Scar Transformation: People who have noticeable scars as a result of self-harm behaviours or due to accidental reasons, often struggle with body image issues. Tattoos offer a way for these individuals to turn them into beautiful works of art. Getting scars tattooed not only improves self-esteem but also helps them heal emotionally as they positively redefine their relationship with these imperfections. Tattoos have been referred to as “scars that speak” (Benson, 2000).
  • Other Reasons: Possessing the power of the thing portrayed in a tattoo, protection from evil, wishing for good fortune, or recovering from an illness are also a few possible reasons for having a tattoo. Tattoos can represent life cycles, loss of loved ones, specific wishes or concerns. It may be a medium to preserve a person’s memory or express deep emotions more concretely.

Understanding Tattooing From The Psychoanalytic Lens

The pioneering figure behind Psychoanalysis is Sigmund Freud. This prominent school of thought, though subject to extreme criticism, has been enormously significant in explaining human behaviour. 

The main assumption of Psychoanalytic theory is that human behaviour is driven by the unconscious. Many of our seemingly unexplained behaviours are the result of deep-rooted thoughts, feelings and intrapsychic conflicts. These are concealed from consciousness to protect ourselves from distress and hence reside in the unconscious. According to a study by Can et al., 2020, tattoos replaced self-harming behaviours in heroin addicts. The researchers have referred to tattooing as a “stage between cutting and verbalizing one’s unconscious conflicts or unexpressed feelings such as anger or sadness”. As per Freud’s theory of Erotogenic Masochism, which talks about “pleasure in pain”, tattoos are used to achieve a sense of wholeness by inflicting pain in one’s body.

The psychology behind tattoos is indeed interesting. It’s not just fashion and trends that motivate an individual to get tattooed. This act carries deep spiritual, cultural, personal and psychological meaning. However, one should refrain from jumping to conclusions and should not think of tattoos, necessarily as a means of expressing one’s emotional pain or inner turmoil. The reason could be as simple as the desire to be seen as ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’. As concluded in a study by Preti et al. (2006), tattoos and body piercings should be regarded as a representation of a person’s desire to express their identity rather than as a marker of psychopathology. Therefore, it is important to approach tattooing with an open mind, acknowledging its different characteristics and the many different stories it represents for every individual.

References +
  • Altunay, İ. K., Mercan, S., & Özkur, E. (2021). Tattoos in psychodermatology. Psych, 3(3), 269–278.
  • Dhumal, D., & Patole, S. (2024). Psychological Impact of Tattoos: Review Article. Iconic Research and Engineering Journals, 7(10), 189.
  • Gumus, B. (2019). Examining Tattooing as a form of Identity Expression and Interaction Process: Ataturk Tattooing Case. Journal of Comparative Studies, 41(12), 94–120.
  • Khosla, V., Joseph, V., & Gordon, H. (2010). Tattoos: what is their significance? Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 16(4), 281–287.

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