Mental Health
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7 Stunning Tattoos With the Power to Heal

Tattoos can help transform and reclaim areas that illness has touched.

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By Rose Hayes

Illness—both mental and physical—can change a person’s story and alter their body in unpredictable ways. But for many, tattoos are a way to transform areas that illness has touched. From reconstructive tattoos after breast surgery to ink that redefines self-injury scars, tattoos can help people change their illness narrative. They allow body parts to be reclaimed with beautiful art of the person’s own design.

We spoke to people with chronic illness tattoos, as well as tattoo artists across the country, to learn how, in their experience, ink can encourage healing. Here are seven powerful images, plus words from each person about what their tattoo means to them. 

“I feel beautiful again.”

2 / 8 “I feel beautiful again.”

“I’m the flat woman,” says Chiara, a breast cancer survivor and author of Beauty Through the Beast, a blog about fighting cancer with beauty in mind. “To me, this photo exudes freedom. It illustrates the fact that we have choices and beauty has no boundaries. For example, some may choose reconstruction with beautiful tattoos, while others may not choose reconstruction at all and remain bare.”

“Our scars are not something to be ashamed of or hidden,” she continues. “In fact, they reveal our journey. When people see this photograph, I hope they see beauty in each of us; not just physically but, most importantly, the peace that we carry within.” Follow Chiara on Instagram @CancerBTTB.

“I’m the one with the tattoos,” says Allyson, a published alternative and pin-up model who raises breast cancer awareness through her work. “I had tattoos before cancer, so when this all happened—and I knew that I’d be having a bi-lateral mastectomy—there was no question in my mind; I wanted to tattoo something beautiful over what cancer had taken away.”

“This was my opportunity to take my body back,” she says. “Nothing compares to real breasts, but it has made looking in the mirror easier. I feel beautiful again. It's kind of like permanent lingerie.” Follow Allyson on Instagram @horror_cosmic.

Artist: John Pohl from Bonedaddys Tattoo in Aston, Pennsylvania.
Instagram: @johnpohl.

“I’m more confident than I’ve been in years.”

3 / 8 “I’m more confident than I’ve been in years.”

“I’m Yvonne, a breast cancer survivor,” says the owner of these floral tattoos. “I underwent chemotherapy, radiation and several surgeries, which included a double mastectomy.” Before her diagnosis, Yvonne was also involved in a car accident that left her with a 7-inch scar on her abdominal area.

“I was grateful to be alive, but after surviving so many traumas, I needed to see something beautiful in the mirror again. I began searching the Internet and found a news broadcast on a tattoo artist named Shane Wallin,” she shares. “That interview resonated with me as women like myself began talking about wanting to restore their relationship with the mirror again.”

“I booked an appointment and it changed my life! I'm more confident than I've been in years,” she says. “Shane’s work empowers women, restores confidence, and helps them get their sexy back!”

Artist: Shane Wallin from Garnet Tattoo in Pacific Beach, California.
Instagram: @shanewallintattoo.

“Inspire and help others feel less alone.”

4 / 8 “Inspire and help others feel less alone.”

Tattoo artists can help to visually reconstruct areas, such as nipples, facial hair or facial features following an illness or injury. For example, Kristy, shown here, had 3-D nipples tattooed onto her breasts after undergoing surgery for a rare disease. 

In her blog, Kristy explains that these tattoos are medals of triumph and beautiful pieces of art. After undergoing breast reconstruction and tattooing, she paired up with her friend, Nicole Bartnick, for “a finish-line photo shoot.” Kristy describes the session as “a symbol of beauty and confidence, proving to the world that a mastectomy is a beautiful thing. It is a symbol of life. It isn’t a loss, but a gain. It signifies having won.”

She adds, “My entire mission has been to inspire and help others feel less alone.”

Photographer: Nicole Bartnick.
Instagram: @nicolebartnick. Facebook: facebook.com/nicole.bartnick.9.

Artist: Michael V. Baker from Ink Storm Tattoos in Sterling, Illinois.
Instagram: @baker13tattoos.

“So much color, brightness and order.”

5 / 8 “So much color, brightness and order.”

Thousands of people now share a tiny punctuation mark tattoo with an incredibly important purpose: to raise awareness about mental health issues.

“The optional semicolon continues a sentence, rather than ending one like an abrupt period,” reads the Semicolon Tattoo website. It serves as reminder for people to “share their stories and continue them until the proper ending is written.”

Jill, the person whose semicolon tattoo is featured here, shares, “I loved the idea of so much color, brightness and order surrounding something that could be so dark and chaotic.” 

Learn more about Project Semicolon, a faith-based nonprofit organization that supports and encourages people with depression, self-injury, a history of suicidal thoughts and other mental health concerns. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Artist: Tomas Garcia from Old Soul Tattoo in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
See more of Tomas’ work and follow him on Instagram @tomas_garcia. 

“It’s a therapeutic and positive experience.”

6 / 8 “It’s a therapeutic and positive experience.”

This tattoo features a molecule of fluoxetine, a common anti-depressant that works by regulating the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin allows brain cells to communicate with each other effectively and helps to control mood.

“A huge part of accepting that you have a mental illness is accepting yourself,” says Kym Munster, the artist, who often designs mental health tattoos. “Tattoos are incredibly personal, so to wear something like this piece is an incredibly bold move.”

It’s a powerful move, too. Mental health tattoos don’t just affect the people who wear them; they have a ripple effect, encouraging positive conversations about mental health with anyone who comments on them.

“The more people who talk about these tattoos, the better,” says Kym. “It's a wonderful way to express yourself and, for many, the whole process from start-to-finish is very therapeutic and positive. Plus, you have something to enjoy for the rest of your life,” she adds. “Sometimes that permanent change makes such a difference.”

Follow Kym on Instagram @feline_sick or visit the Custom Inc. website.

“So paramedics would see it.”

7 / 8 “So paramedics would see it.”

In addition to helping people heal, tattoos can offer protection and peace of mind when it comes to ongoing illnesses. Similar to medical alert bracelets, they can provide medical personnel with essential, life-saving information about a person’s health needs.

“The reason my customer got this tattoo was in case of emergencies,” says Ruthless, the artist. “That way paramedics would see it and be alerted to the fact that he has an implanted defibrillator, which will restart his heart on its own if it stops.”

Artist: Ruthless from The Black Phoenix Tattoo Studio.
Instagram: @ruthless_artist.

“This will potentially save my life someday!”

8 / 8 “This will potentially save my life someday!”

In addition to its colors and design, the location of a tattoo can add meaning and even offer protection in emergency situations. “My whole life I’ve been dangerously allergic to (the antibiotic) penicillin,” says Cynthia, the owner of this tattoo. “I grew up wearing a faded medical bracelet engraved with my allergy.”

“But this tattoo is strategically placed on my left arm with the stronger vein,” she says. “In case of an emergency, this will hopefully be the first thing that’s seen.” Since emergency personnel would likely use a person’s strongest vein to start an IV and administer antibiotics —including penicillin—Cynthia’s tattoo acts as a shield of sorts against an allergic reaction. 

“I am so happy with Ian at Colossus Tattoo for his clean artwork,” she adds. “This will potentially save my life someday!”

Artist: Ian Loughlin at Colossus Tattoo in Tempe, Arizona.
Instagram: @ian_loughlin_tattooer.