Empowering Art

Researcher finds young women may use tattoos to distance themselves from past emotional trauma.

Many arms extended from out-of-frame using varied electronic devices.
For Lisa Briner, a junior kinesiology major from Round Rock, Texas, tattoos are a form of self-expression.

Lisa Briner got her first tattoo the day she turned eighteen. The cherry tree with a trunk resembling a treble clef that sprawls across her back serves as a permanent reminder of music’s impact on her life.

I had a rough childhood. For me, this tattoo was a kind of escape, Briner said. Music is something my family shares, and it helped me connect with others in high school. My tattoo reminds me of music - something beautiful and good in my life.

Briner, a 21-year-old kinesiology major at Texas Tech, now has four tattoos. The native of Round Rock, Texas, said each of her tattoos is a highly personal, permanent expression of life and beauty.

Texas Tech sociologist Jerome Koch said Briner’s thoughts align with the findings of his recent study on body art and well-being among college students. Koch, who has studied body art since 1999, said female college students who obtain four or more tattoos may use body art for restoration, empowerment and independence.

In the study published in “The Social Science Journal” in 2015, female students with four or more tattoos were four times as likely to report previous suicide attempts than other women. Paradoxically, the highly tattooed women also reported higher levels of self-esteem.

Koch said this paradox may indicate female college students use body art to distance themselves from past emotional trauma.

We know breast cancer survivors often get tattoos to reclaim their bodies. I have a friend who got a tattoo on her ankle after surviving cancer. Some of these women use tattoos to cover scars, but others simply make statements, Koch said. We speculate these suicide survivors use tattoos to reclaim something they lost emotionally.

A young woman's tatooed forearm.
In Koch’s study, female college students with four or more tattoos reported higher self-esteem than their peers.

In 2010, Kochs’ studies showed college students with more tattoos were more likely to engage in deviant behaviors such as binge drinking and marijuana use than their peers. Because edgy behavior tends to have emotional implications, Koch said he and his team decided to investigate the well-being of tattooed students. He said he anticipated highly tattooed students would show signs of depression.

Surprisingly, we found nothing of the sort, he said. Instead, women with four or more tattoos actually showed higher levels of self-esteem than their peers.

This discovery opens a new realm of discussion regarding body art. In the past, tattoos were seen as a symbol of social deviance and rebellion. However, as tattoos become more popular among a wider variety of individuals, people have found positive uses for body art, he said.

In 2013, Koch and his team discovered some Protestant college students use religious tattoos as tools for reinforcing and sharing their faith. For example, one student said he got a tattoo to symbolize a renewed commitment to purity and the Lord after losing his virginity.

Not all people who acquire lots of tattoos are expressing anti-establishment views, Koch said. People are now using body art in really positive ways.

Briner agrees her tattoos serve as reminders and expressions of things that matter to her.

To me, tattoos are a reminder of beauty, she said. What you went through might be ugly, but your tattoo is beautiful and you are beautiful.

This research was supported by a grant from the E.A. Franklin Charitable Trust.

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