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Why getting inked can kickstart a process of healing

Tattoos can symbolise personal struggles or milestones, and serve as a permanent and visible testament to one’s growth

Detail from Harpreet Chhachhia’s tattoo, which depicts his idea of love and sexuality.
Detail from Harpreet Chhachhia’s tattoo, which depicts his idea of love and sexuality.

“A girl with a thundering cloud for a head! This was one of my first tattoos,” says Disha Ray, a 24-year-old designer from Bengaluru. She had this image inked on her arm to symbolise an overwhelming phase in her life when everything seemed to spiral out of her control. Two other tattoos, which read ‘chaos’ and ‘heal’, serve as daily reminders of that chaotic period and her ability to heal thereafter.

“I have had many clients, who have tattoos in the form of quotes or life mantras, which depict their mental state at the time. And they’ve told me that the entire process (of getting a tattoo) is cathartic,” says Ruchi Ruuh, a relationship counselor from Delhi.

Gaining self-confidence

“Initially when I started getting tattoos, I didn’t love myself or my body,” Ray  shares. She recalls that in her school days the boys always “chose her pretty friends”. As a “chubby kid”, who was made to feel conscious of her body by family and friends, these rejections left her even more vulnerable. And she grew up trying to hide herself in ill-fitted clothes.

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It was only after getting several smaller tattoos that Ray gathered the courage to get inked on her sternum, the body part she felt most conscious about. “This piece of art made me want to celebrate my body. I cannot explain how liberating the process felt,” she says.

Tattoos, like the one Ray got, can symbolise personal struggles or milestones and serve as a permanent and visible testament to one’s growth.

While large tattoos attract more attention, even the smaller ones have the power to symbolise deep messages. “I recently worked on a very small tattoo that reads ‘Ctrl’, resembling the control key of a keyboard,” says Shivani Adhikari, a senior tattoo artist at Aliens Tattoo, Bengaluru.

She recalls how her client chose to have more control over his life with the help of his new tattoo. He wanted to physically press the ‘ctrl’ button on his body to pause and balance himself. “The tattoo may look simple to others but it has had a huge impact on my client’s mental health,” adds Adhikari.

Some people may choose tattoos as an aesthetic cover for wounds, Ruuh says. Meaningful quotes such as ‘this too shall pass’, ‘breathe’ or ‘you got this’ can create impactful moments of awareness and distraction from pain or anxiety.

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Reclaiming your identity

“People keep asking me about my sexuality, so I decided to let my latest tattoo do all the talking,” says Harpreet Chhachhia, a 48-year-old literary editor from Mumbai.

The tattoo on his right arm depicts two men locked in a loving embrace, wherein the second man turns into rose petals and floats away. The piece of art depicts Chhachhia’s idea of love and sexuality and makes him feel “lighter”. It’s like wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Since the tattoo meant so much to Chhachhia, it was important for him to work with an artist who could understand and empathise with his journey. When he discovered Allan Gois, the lead tattoo artist at Aliens Tattoo, Mumbai, it was like a match made in heaven.

“I knew I had to do justice to his concept since it was a personal and powerful medium of self-expression. As an artist, it is important that I comprehend my client’s ideas through detailed discussions, and I did the same for Harpreet,” says Gois.

For centuries, humans have embraced body art as a powerful expression of identity. Whether marking significant life moments or seeking a deeper sense of belonging, people use tattoos to convey their emotions and celebrate their unique selves.“For members of the queer community, tattoos can almost be the equivalent of telling the world: ‘I know who I am, and I celebrate it’,” says Ruuh.

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Commemorating loss

“I got the name of my dog tattooed on my arm after he passed away,” says Prattay Dasgupta, a 36-year-old resident of Kolkata.

Although the grief has been never-ending, the tattoo works as a tangible reminder of his beloved pet. Like Dasgupta, many find comfort in ‘memorial tattoos’ as a way to cope with grief. Right from choosing the artwork to getting it inked, tattoos can give people some form of control over an irreparable loss.

Ruuh agrees that permanently inking something on the body can feel like closure. It’s like keeping a lost part of yourself closest to your body, on your skin.

And, while grief can be overwhelming, it is during the healing process that people make sense of the chaos, find order and set intentions for the future. Tattoos can capture these intentions and serve as a daily reminder of what a person can achieve or control.

For Dasgupta, the shock of losing his dog had felt like losing a part of his own body. The tattoo has brought some relief and serves as a constant reminder that he will forever carry the memories of his pet with him.

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According to Ruuh, who has more than 20 tattoos on her body, the process of getting inked can release adrenaline, dopamine and endorphins, hormones that boost confidence.

Debarati Chakraborty is an independent journalist, who writes on wellness, relationships and sexuality

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