Some journeys involving chronic diseases are not only physically painful but also socially and mentally dehumanizing. Take, for example, breast cancer that causes thousands of women to lose one or both their breasts, leaving some to deal with “abject bodies.”
That might have significantly changed when a breast cancer survivor Joanne Matuschka, a New York photographer and a one-time Pulitzer Prize awardee, posed for an artwork called Beauty Out of Damage. Draped in white cloth, she exposed her mastectomy scar as a form of political statement and a process of reclaiming one’s womanhood.
Then, she started appearing on photos of her breasts covered in tattoos. Since then, more women, including celebrities, bravely bore their mastectomy scars perfectly concealed by artworks that may also be telling their stories.
For decades, tattoos have received a lot of flak and judgment. One study showed that those who wear them are less likely to secure a job easily. Many forget that having tattoos is an old tradition, probably way older than most customs and cultures. In fact, one of the oldest tattoo tools in Western North America dates back to around 2,000 years ago.
Most of all, tattoos are not only for aesthetics. For many people, like Joanne Matuschka, they can be healing.
The Healing Power of Tattoos
One of the recent studies by Tel Aviv University showed that tattoos might help people cope with trauma from ugly experiences ranging from abuse to losses in five ways:
- Tattoos can expose hidden scars. Not all traumatic experiences leave wounds. Others affect the mind, creating hidden mental scars. Tattoos can bring these effects of suffering to the surface, so people will believe their trauma happened and hopefully receive the recognition their stories deserve.
- Sporting tattoos ensure the traumatic event will not be forgotten. While not all trauma survivors want to relive the experience, most want to recall the past to understand and see what they have endured. Some also want others to never forget the same event. A good example is a tattoo that commemorates 9/11.
- Tattoos can help build and maintain an intimate connection with others. The artworks can allow even those who have not experienced the same trauma to connect with those who don’t. In the process, survivors receive greater empathy and understanding from their loved ones.
- These tattoos can also commemorate a collective shared experience, which then helps people who are suffering know they’re not alone in the journey to healing.
- Tattoos can signal transformation, empowering people to take back the control they lost during a traumatic event.
Some forms of tattooing, like scalp micropigmentation, can have physical and mental benefits, particularly for men dealing with baldness or hair loss. In this procedure, specialists tattoo the scalp to create the illusion of hair.
It’s a practical alternative for those who cannot afford or go through a hair transplant surgery, but at the same time, it helps create a more complete, polished appearance. That’s not all. It can boost a person’s confidence. In many studies, researchers found a close association between diminished self-esteem and androgenetic alopecia or male-pattern baldness.
Bald men are more likely to have a poor perception of themselves, which impacts many aspects of their lives. They may feel less confident during interviews that could have landed their dream job or more anxious when thinking of socializing and dating. In other words, they can experience a lower quality of life than males with no hair loss.
The Future of Tattoos in Medicine
The healing power of tattoos doesn’t end in the mind. A 2016 research by the University of Alabama revealed that having tattoos may actually train the immune system to become more effective.
Dr. Christopher Lynn hypothesized that getting more frequent tattoos can trigger an immunological response to fight off the possible infection in the injection site. This might explain why many people experience soreness and exhaustion after a tattoo session.
To test his hypothesis, he worked with tattoo business volunteers who underwent an interview and provided a saliva sample. Lynn and his team discovered that the levels of immunoglobulin A, a type of antibody, dropped significantly after the individuals received their initial tattoo. However, the decrease was slighter among those who received tattoos more often.
Meanwhile, a 2020 research by the University of California revealed that tattoo ink dyes could serve as contrasting agents and work with nanoparticles to help locate and determine the size of cancer even at early stages. This way, patients are more likely to have higher survival rates.
Tattoos can mean so many things to someone. One thing is clear: they are more than a form of self-expression. They can heal bodies and minds.