Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Tattoos After Trauma-Do They Have Healing Potential?

Whether you have many tattoos or would never consider getting one, you may be surprised to learn that 40% of Americans between the ages 26-40 and 36% between ages 18-25 have at least one tattoo.

Once associated with marginalized, oppressed, victimized or transient groups in the population, tattoos are increasingly part of mainstream culture.

Americans spend $1.65 billion dollars annually on tattoos.

While the reasons for tattoos are as varied as the people who choose to get them, certain trends have been identified. One is the choice of a tattoo in the aftermath of trauma.

  • Across generations and wars, those in the military have used tattoos as tributes to fallen comrades.
  • In the aftermath of 9/11, civilians and firefighters throughout the world choose tattoos as an indelible reminder of the  terrorist assault, the courage of First Responders and the loss of so many.
  • Sociologists, Glen Gentry and Derek Alderman estimate that there are thousands of Katrina and New Orleans-related tattoos reflecting both horrific images of crumbling buildings and gushing floodwater, as well as signs and symbols of a beloved city.
  • In the wake of the unprecedented destruction from Hurricane Sandy, tattoos and tattoo fundraisers have emerged. The message of one seems particularly meaningful- “ Hold Steadfast.”

Do These Tattoos Have Healing Potential?

A close consideration suggests that both the reasons and the choice of tattoos reflect many of the factors associated with recovery after trauma.

Healing From the Body Out

  • Whether a traumatic event involves a car accident, escape from freezing floodwaters or the loss of a child, it is registered in our body in terms of the survival reflexes of fight, flight and freeze.
  • Encoded under these conditions, our memory of the traumatic event is not registered as narrative, but as fragments of highly charged visual images, bodily feelings, tactile sensations or sensory reactivity to reminders of the event.
  • As such, trauma experts encourage us to work from the body out in the course of recovery and healing—to attend to the sensations, senses, and images that carry the imprint of trauma.

The tattoo’s use of the body to register a traumatic event is a powerful re-doing. It starts at the body’s barrier of protection, the skin, and uses it as a canvas to bear witness, express, release and unlock the viscerally felt impact of trauma …

When a young father suffered the death of his newborn son, his brothers joined him in tattooing the name of their nephew on their arms. They would all carry him.

Bearing Witness in Many Forms

Creative outlets as art, music, writing and drama draw upon many parts of our brain and in doing so offer a means of expressing aspects of trauma that were never encoded into words.

  • One only has to look at the variations, colors, intricacies and personalizations of tattoos to recognize them as creative outlets of expression and to consider their role as conduits to a healing narrative.
  • In their study of tattooing after Hurricane Katrina, sociologists, Glen Gentry and Derek Alderman found that people were using tattoos as a way of uncovering the memories and stories about Katrina and its aftermath that they wished to make visible.
  • These researchers learned that in the creation and the inking of a tattoo, the dialogue with the tattoo artist almost always included some narration of the trauma story.

Tattoos invite inquiry. As such, they offer the opportunity to translate trauma into words and to have another person care enough to listen.

A young man in New Orleans has a large X on his calf with symbols. (The X was used to mark the number of dead on houses.) His tattoo, he says, is both a testament to the survival of himself, his wife and new born infant in the wake of the storm, and a need to have the world remember this traumatic event.

Remembering and Mourning

Recovery from trauma involves both remembering and finding a place to deal with loss.

To stand at a 9/11 memorial, or to be in the company of veterans, is to know that their tattoos are testaments to memorialize as well as a way to hold on to the enduring presence of their loved ones—to carry them through life.

A young man recently explained to me that his tattoo of symbols and words “ Only the Good Die Young” was chosen to remember two friends who were killed in Iraq. He told me “I need this.”

Undoing The Shame of Hidden Trauma

In its visibility and in the bearer’s wish to let it be seen, a tattoo can undo the shame so often associated with trauma, war, victimization and the intergenerational legacy of hidden trauma.

The founder of “ Give an Hour,” a service that provides pro-bono clinical services for all military and their family, reports that she was motivated to start this program because she remembers her veteran father as a man who suffered in silence without help, never speaking of his combat experience and always covering the tattoos from his military service under long sleeves.

A poignant example of undoing hidden trauma is the reported decision of some children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to have their forearms tattooed with the very numbers inscribed on their elder relatives in the death camps.

Choosing to publically bear the same numbers, so often hidden, they turn horror to honor and shame to a shout about survival and a mandate to “ Never Forget.”


Connection with self and others in a way that makes the future a possibility is crucial in healing and moving beyond trauma.

When a tattoo is more than a static sign of identification with loss or pain, when it is an ongoing reminder of pain suffered and pain survived, it becomes transformative and serves as an ongoing sign of resiliency and possibility.

The tattoo pictured above was chosen on the event of the bearer’s graduation. It registers the amount of time he was officially flat-lined after an accident and it reminds him that nothing will stop his moving on.”

It would seem that for many who have suffered, the choice of a tattoo after trauma has healing potential.

 Listen in to people sharing the Stories and Memories of their tattoos in Psych UP