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Beyond skin deep, telling a story

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By Marlon Hyde
Contributing Writer

When I was first thinking about getting tattoos I wanted them to tell my story. I have three tattoos –currently, a hyacinth bush, roses and the New York skyline. A hyacinth Bush to pay tribute to my grandma, Roses to symbolize my hometown Rosedale, NY in Queens and a lion to symbolize Jamaica the land where my culture comes from. Beyond the skin-deep ink, they have become part of me, helping me feel more confident. I’m hardly alone in my feelings here. According to recent Pinterest data, searches for “self-love tattoos” grew 1320 percent compared to last year, and psychologically, it totally makes sense. I had my first tattoo a year ago during October break. I had recently lost a friend at UVM and was under pressure from academics to my home life, so I did what any rational person would do; I made a tattoo appointment.

Body art is having a moment. Once the venue of sailors and bikers and fashion statements within popular culture, tattoos now offer a kind of alternative therapy, adding something unique to the evolving conversation around mental health.

A tattoo while suffering through depression won’t instantly fix everything, but the dose of positivity a tattoo can help contribute to better body positivity and fight depression and anxiety.

“One of the most noxious aspects of mental illness and psychological suffering is that it often, and at least initially, makes people feel out of control and passive,”said New York City psychologist Heather Sylvester, in a Byrdie interview. “A mental health-related tattoo can serve to flip the equation because you are affirmatively engaging your own psychological struggle,” Not only that, but they can be helpful down the road.

Lorant Peeler works at the University of Michigan’s Spectrum Center, hosting events that showcase LGBTQ+ students.

My tattoos were spurred by depression and anxiety heightened at times by the loss of my friend to suicide. I felt that I needed to do something for me. I wanted to affirm a new beginning. The whizzing of the tattoo gun sounded attractive. Staring in the mirror imagining how it would look, lost and empty despair transformed into excitement.

During these times, when I was grasping for something to control, getting meaningful images etched onto my skin felt powerful. Sitting in that chair and getting ink under my skin allowed me to see a version of self I love the most, the one that makes me feel more like me.

For other people, tattoos can represent a more long-term or severe struggle with mental illness.

The stories behind many of these tattoos include intense struggles and pain. During recovery, mental health-related tattoos can aid in being helpful reminders to continue to push.

“My first tattoo was inspired by my family. They were crucial when it came to me teaching myself to enjoy more in life,” said Josh Dionne ‘20,

“It makes me feel like I have more power over my body,” Dionne said. “I’ve always been self-conscious about taking my shirt off and when I had to take off my shirt for my first tattoo it was surreal.” His tattoos have helped him become more comfortable in his skin connecting the outside world and his bare skin. “It brought me into a community of people that have a more holistic sense of body image. It helped open up a dialogue that made it easier to talk about how I felt in my own skin,” said Josh. He felt less exposed.

“I was ushered into a new community that allowed me to heal and grow as a person,” he added.

Josh Dionne’s tattoo was inspired by him wanting to always remember to try to do better and to not compare himself to others.

Tattoos that symbolize mental health have taken off . One common tattoo is the molecular structure for serotonin. “I got the chemical molecule of serotonin tattooed behind my right ear one year after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It is the chemical in your brain that makes you happy and if you have low amounts of it then different mental health issues can occur,” said Kelsey Nudd ‘21,

According to Dictionary.com, “A semicolon tattoo is a tattoo of the semicolon punctuation mark used as a message of affirmation and solidarity against suicide, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues”. The semicolon represents a brush with suicide–a sentence that the inked person could have ended but ultimately chose to continue. It stands as a symbol of the darkest of moments, but also of “hope and continuation.”

The semicolon tattoo ,usually small and subtle makes a difference to those who have it.

Tattoos displaying different gender identities and sexualities have also become more popular. Laying atop Lorant Peeler’s, a recent graduate at Eastern Michigan University, shoulder lies a succulent with the words “still growing” alongside it. While on their other shoulder, a modified version of the symbol for agender people along with their pronouns in their best friend’s handwriting paints their skin. What inspired Peeler’s tattoos were their identities. “I really wanted something to affirm my identity as a non-binary/agender person”.

“No matter how the world perceives me, I have a reminder of who I am permanently in my skin.”

“The succulent I got this summer after a pretty bad few months mental health-wise. I was in a rut and couldn’t do anything to better myself” said Peeler. They felt the need for some change. The succulent meant a new beginning filled with self-love.

The succulent also serves as a reminder to Peeler that, “Even if I can’t care for my body correctly all the time, the attention I can give it will keep me going,”

Demery Coppola, ‘21 has three tattoos. Her jellyfish tattoo stems from her appreciation for the boneless sea creature’s ability to adapt to the dangerous conditions of global warming and benefit from it. The olive branch on her right wrist plays on the phrase extending an olive branch which can be commonly seen as a gesture of peace.

“The forget-me-nots remind me of when I lost my virginity and didn’t really want to,” she said

It was the day before Coppola’s high school orientation. She did not know about having rights to her body and was taken advantage of by someone she trusted. She figured he must know what to do and that this must be normal. It took her until last year to confront that and come to terms with it. “I got forget-menots on my hip so if someone ever tries to take advantage of me like that, or any other way, I’m going to remember myself,” she added.

The tattoo helps with making peace with herself and moving on, she said. “It’s such a comforting reminder to look down [at the tattoo] and know that I had that realization and can move forward from it,” she said as a smile grew larger on her face. The unifying theme between these stories appears to be control. Getting a tattoo can be a declaration of authority. As to say, I am the captain of this ship, my body, and my mental health. It can also be a reminder that not having that control is okay too.

“The forget-me-nots remind me of when I lost my virginity and didn’t really want to,” she said

It was the day before Coppola’s high school orientation. She did not know about having rights to her body and was taken advantage of by someone she trusted.

She figured he must know what to do and that this must be normal. It took her until last year to confront that and come to terms with it. “I got forget-menots on my hip so if someone ever tries to take advantage of me like that, or any other way, I’m going to remember myself,” she added.

The tattoo helps with making peace with herself and moving on, she said. “It’s such a comforting reminder to look down [at the tattoo] and know that I had that realization and can move forward from it,” she said as a smile grew larger on her face.

The unifying theme between these stories appears to be control. Getting a tattoo can be a declaration of authority. As to say, I am the captain of this ship, my body, and my mental health. It can also be a reminder that not having that control is okay too.

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