Tattoos and trauma: Women with ink

Lina AbiRafeh
6 min readAug 31, 2023

When I got my first tattoo, I knew that society wouldn’t like it. My family wouldn’t like it. There’s still a stigma around women with tattoos. No one said yes, get a tattoo. But I didn’t care. To me it was deeply personal and private, coming from a place where I needed to commemorate a difficult moment. That’s why I got my tattoo. For me and me alone.

— anon woman

Many tattoo stories start this way, driven by a “deeply personal” need to mark ourselves, to mark a moment in our lives. While there is still stigma to some degree, tattoos have become a prevalent form of self-expression, and continue to gain popularity. There’s a lot to say about the cultural evolution of tattoos, and cultures who practice traditional tattooing, and so on. I could write pages.

For this little piece, I’m focusing on tattoos and trauma. Are we driven to ink as a result of a difficult experience? And if so, are there gender disparities in why we ink? Some recent articles I read made me think so.

First, the basics. Who tattoos? There are differences across gender and age lines. A striking 38% of women bear at least one tattoo, in contrast to 27% of their male counterparts. Looking closer, 56% of women aged 18 to 29 and 53% of women aged 30 to 49 have at least one tattoo. These figures underscore the evolving landscape of tattoos as a canvas for women’s stories.

A study from 2022 revealed a strong connection between childhood maltreatment, neglect, and body art. It seems that people who experienced childhood abuse and neglect were more likely to have tattoos and body piercings. This discovery highlights the complex interplay between our personal histories, our ability to heal, and the artwork we choose to adorn ourselves with. People use tattoos as a healing force from their trauma.

Donna Torrisi, founder of the Family Practice and Counseling Network in Philadelphia, started to inquire about the tattoos of her patients, eventually leading to her book Tattoo Monologues that tells the stories of 29 women.

As one example, a woman in the book shared that she “didn’t like tattoos” until a car accident claimed the life of her daughter. “When she died, I had this void,” she explained. To honor her, she tattooed her daughter’s name with angel wings on her back, to serve as a constant reminder. “Losing her was so unexpected and so devastating,” she said, “that was a way for me to have her as a part of me.”

Other women featured in the book also used tattoos to cope with their own traumas. One decided to ink an emblem representing the name of her childhood molester onto her arm, while another has a tattoo of her rescue dog, who played a pivotal role in her life. According to Torrisi, “it’s very very common for women to have a tattoo that represents something very very difficult that they have overcome.”

Emily McCombs, the Deputy Editor of HuffPost Personal who writes about identity and body politics says her relationship with tattoos evolved from “looking cool” to a more profound appreciation of the art form and culture. McCombs finds the process empowering, giving her a sense of ownership over her body “despite the trauma I’d experienced,” she writes, “and the way society tries to exert control over women’s bodies.”

Her article I Don’t Want To Talk About My Tattoos With Strange Men addresses the phenomenon of “tatcalling,” where men make comments on women’s tattoos as an expression of “entitlement to our bodies that women experience constantly.”

“Being a woman already comes with an oversized helping of unwanted attention,” McComb writes. Exactly. And there’s trauma enough in that.

When asked about how she views tattoos as part of a healing process, Zoë Bean, a tattoo artist working in Brooklyn at The New Moon Studio said the following: “I think that everyone has experienced some form of trauma, whether it’s sexual violence or emotional violence or just–being a person in the world is really hard. More so now than ever. It’s been my experience getting tattooed and now being a tattooer, that sometimes, you need your outside to match your inside. There are very few things that you have control over in terms of your own body. It’s a way to claim parts of your body that maybe don’t feel good to you, and to change the way that you see them.”

To Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone, an Alaskan Native, tattoos play a large role in her Inupiat identity. From these tattoos, Tahbone got her own traditional Inupiat tattoo, a pattern of three lines on her chin. Historically, chin tattoos within the Inupiat community symbolized various significant life events, encompassing marriage, trauma, becoming a parent, or, as seen in Tahbone’s instance, transitioning into adulthood.

A tradition that once served as therapy for body and mind might now, in its restoration, treat deep cultural wounds. “When we see that ink on people, we know that we are healing from the historical trauma that occurred,” Tahbone says. As traditional tattoos like Tahbone’s regain popularity among indigenous people, they could potentially play a role in healing profound cultural scars through its revitalization. In Tahbone’s word “Witnessing those inked symbols on individuals signifies our ongoing healing journey from the historical traumas we have endured.”

This is fascinating―and profound―stuff.

I’m nosy-by-nature, and so I asked a few friends.

When I lost my dad, I was devastated. He was my rock, my biggest supporter. His signature is forever inked on my arm as a reminder that I am forever his daughter.

I was molested as a child and don’t think I ever fully recovered from it. I’ve dealt with body issues and eating issues and mental health issues for decades. Worst thing was the feeling that I no longer owned my own body―he took that away from me before I even understood what it meant. So my tattoo is a reminder that I own myself, no matter what.

I’ve had three kids, with the third being the most difficult. She almost died, I almost died. It’s a miracle we’re both here. After that, I tattooed the birth dates, times, places of my three on my body as a reminder that they came from me, and that I survived the process. It’s also a reminder of how traumatic childbirth is―an experience we too often forget to honor.

And there were many, many more.

Even my own tattoos mark moments in my life that have been meaningful to me. I wrote about one of them here in the story of my dog. And maybe one day I’ll write about the others. Or not. The point is, there are stories that run far deeper than the ink. And even if we’re curious, it’s not our business to know other people’s stories.

Taking it further (cuz… nosy-by-nature), I consulted my favorite tattoo artist Joa, Lebanon’s very first female tattoo artist. She’s a graphic designer by training who has been tattooing since 2011, fighting to the top of an overwhelmingly sexist profession in a highly patriarchal country. Overall, an ass-kicker.

Joa explained that women are more likely to use tattoos to cover up scars, for instance from childbirth or breast removal or other things. “This is a form of trauma that brings them in,” she explains, “so they can make beautiful what they find unattractive.” Men are not driven by these things. For women seeking to commemorate a trauma, they’ll ask for a flower or something simple, symbolic. But men who are inclined to do so will tattoo their trauma on a much larger scale, with something darker and more detailed, Joa explained. Interesting. I could say a lot about this…

Joa does a lot of work with breast cancer survivors, offering free tattoos in the form of a realistic nipple tattoo or a design that would conceal the scar. She does this to “refresh the woman’s faith in herself again.”

“Let’s not forget that women are stronger than men,” Joa added, “so if she has experienced a trauma, she’ll tattoo it as a quote that reminds her of that strength, something that is about her being strong. But men who experience trauma, they put the tattoo as it is, a reflection of the trauma.”

For instance, if the tattoo is to commemorate the loss of a loved one, men will put a picture of that person or the accident. “Women don’t do this,” said Joa, “they find ways to interpret their pain through strength and freedom rather than as a reminder of the painful moment itself.”

All of this contributes to our understanding of how women cope with trauma, how we heal-and-deal, how we too often suppress our emotions or strategically repackage them in order to move on. There’s a lot hidden beneath the ink, and more often than not, the stories run deeper than we’ll ever know.

The freshly-inked author in Joa’s studio, Beirut

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com