“It’s almost like a battle scar in some ways."
Emma Tarbard / Gavin Brown
The vibrating whir of tattoo needles can be incredibly therapeutic. That—along with the bleachy smell of a clean station mingling with the unfamiliar scent of a stranger, someone acutely focused on four square inches of my skin—always feels soothing to me. Of course, getting needles in the skin is supposed to hurt. But when something else hurts more, the sensation is a massage.
Most of the times I’ve decided to take a tattoo needle to the body have been when I was depressed. During these times, when I was grasping for something to control, to make me feel like myself again, getting meaningful words etched onto my skin felt powerful. I got my best friend's name inked on my back a few months after a stroke completely paralyzed her at 23. After I watched her gain back function over the years, the tattoo became a tribute to her strength, as well as a nod to the hell she pulled herself out of. I've got Run in the rain on my left shoulder blade, a reminder from my father to face the storm (essentially, the depression that followed a bad breakup two years ago) head-on rather than cower under the covers all day like I wanted to.
These are now my scriptures. That first wash after I take the bandage off, seeing my pink, raised skin newly emblazoned with a word or phrase or image—that wipe down is baptismal.
Now, as you can imagine, tattoo parlors are full of people feeling their feelings. I’ve been at many a dinner party where someone has launched into full emo-splaining of their tattoo. It was the mural in Spain that changed their perspective on the afterlife, or the Bob Marley song that their father used to sing to them as a toddler. But within the last few years there’s been an uptick in two related things: mental illness awareness, for one, and depression tattoos—ink that’s linked to a person’s relationship with depression, anxiety, or grief. Some are personal mantras, like mine; others are an expression of solidarity with others who’ve had a similar experience.
My tattoos are spurred by what I’d describe as fairly run-of-the-mill depression and anxiety—heightened at times by loss of some kind. For other people, depression tattoos can represent a more longterm or severe struggle with mental illness. The semicolon tatt cropped up all over Pinterest and IG about three years ago, with several similar symbols (e.g.: chemical maps for dopamine and serotonin, and the NEDA symbol for those who have had an eating disorder) that followed. The semicolon represents a brush with suicide—a sentence that the inked person could have ended but ultimately chose not to. It’s a symbol of the darkest of moments, but also of “hope and continuation.”
Gavin Brown, a now 38-year-old teacher in New Orleans, was 15 when his English teacher told him that because he was molested as a child, he’d grow up to be a rapist. “So, I went home, got my mother's gun, and tried to kill myself. But the safety wouldn't disengage,” Brown, who has a semicolon tattoo, tells me. “My teacher believed that ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Well, I didn't become a rapist. I volunteered, counseling sexual assault victims and suicidal teens. I didn't become a criminal like she said I would. I got several degrees and I've been an educator for over 11 years. Hurt people can also heal people.”
Brown says he’s been dealing with depression since he was five years old (“I just didn’t know what it was called”). “I'd been through a lot before I'd even turned 12. But once you realize what you're facing, it's easier to face it,” he says.
Many psychologists agree that the burden of depression can be more manageable once it’s acknowledged. Brown tells me that when he’s feeling depressed, he can look at the semicolon on his wrist and remind himself to keep going. “The tattoo is sort of like a badge and a symbol.”
“It’s almost like a battle scar in some ways,” says David Klemanski, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, who also believes that depression tattoos such as Brown’s can serve people by helping them acknowledge that they’ve been through something challenging, and then thrived. “It can allow them, in a way, to move forward, in recognizing the past and accepting it, and integrating it with themselves. Hopefully, they’re seeing themselves as stronger.”
Depression tattoos are also sometimes grief tattoos. While some people have the name of someone close that they lost scrawled onto their skin, Emma Tarbard, 30, from London, has the chemical map for dopamine behind her ear. When her mother died from cancer, she craved a symbol that accurately encapsulated her spirit. “I got the tattoo to remind me of my mum's strength. She would tell me to not be so hard on myself, and always remember to reward myself,” Tarbard tells me.
Throughout her decade-long battle with cancer—which included painful chemo and surgeries—Tarbard’s mother still socialized, drank her beloved pinot at the pub, and spent time socializing with her squad. “Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that deals with reward and pleasure and no matter what my mum was facing she was always having a good time,” Tarbard says.
She adds that the tattoo is a very personal symbol, so it remains hidden most of the time. “I didn't get it for other people. I got it for me and mum,” she says. And while it was personal to Tarbard, the dopamine image has trended globally; many people who have or have had depression get this tattoo as a reminder that they're deserving of, and are able to create their own, happiness.
Tarbard says that getting inked was kind of pleasurable—this particular tattoo didn’t hurt at all, the way previous ones had. “I'm not sure if it's because of the reason I was getting it that made it more of a meditation,” she says.
This, of course, reminded me of my own experience. I wondered: When penetrating your skin with needles doesn’t hurt, does that mean it’s a type of self-harm? We’re purposely getting something painful done and kind of enjoying it. That’s dark. Klemanksi says he’s learned that in some extreme cases, people do use tattoos to self-harm (remember S-Town?), and points me to some related research. But he says that more commonly, it’s about the numbness that can accompany depression. “There’s such a strong absence of emotions in depression,” he tells me, that sometimes getting a tattoo helps you feel something.
Tarbard has had depression, on and off, throughout her life. “My three tattoos all have some kind of link to hardship in my life. And since Mum's passed, I'm now planning a large upper leg sleeve in memory of her,” she tells me. “Tattoos can be so cathartic.”
Klemanski breaks down this feeling of release: Whether it’s memorializing someone you’ve lost or marking your depression, it can mean you’ve accepted what’s befallen you. It can also be a symbol that connects you to others who’ve gone through something similar. “It's almost like we're brothers and sisters in this experience,” he says. “I think that any functional thing that is visible—whether it's a bracelet or a necklace or a tattoo—certainly can create a community for people to be a part of, and [help them] feel understood.”
Arianna James, 20, was studying abroad in Beijing when her depression surged. "My anxiety was also at its peak," she tells me. "That hopelessness made me want to stay in bed forever...and no matter how much I slept, I was permanently exhausted." She got a tattoo of a line from one of her favorite books, The Raven Cycle, that described a type of "awakeness" that she craved while she felt foggy and numb. "I wanted 'to feel awake when my eyes are open,' to be here and present, in the moment," she says.
Here’s my take: What ties together the stories of all the people I spoke to, for better or worse, appears to be control. Getting a tattoo can be a declaration of authority: I am the captain of this ship, goddammit. I get to exert control over my body, and if the adrenaline hits just right, I get to feel an emotional rush as well. Sitting in that chair and getting ink embedded under my skin has allowed me glimpses of the self I love the most—the one that actually has a grip. At other times, it can be a reminder that not having a grip is okay, too.
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