First and second. Images by author and Samantha Mancino.

Tattoos Can Be Therapeutic

The benefits of having permanent physical reminders

I only have two tattoos, and getting both felt like private matters of necessity. The first was developed during a Reiki session with a mentor of mine, Melinda Lane Fisher. I had just moved back to Seattle to help my mother care for my dying father, and I needed guidance. During one of our earlier sessions together, she suggested a mantra for me. I have struggled with anxiety around my lack of control since I was an infant. Overwhelm claims me easily, and all the forces at play within my life can sometimes feel suffocating. Two words surfaced for both of us as a reminder during times of uncertainty — “I trust.”

I put my faith in the universe and trust that I will be taken care of, no matter what comes.

Moments later, she looked at me and said, “That feels like a tattoo.” I nodded. Although I’d never gotten a tattoo before, I felt the rightness in her words. A few weeks later I found myself in the nearest reputable tattoo shop, asking for those words to be permanently etched on my left forearm. I didn’t have any idea of which font I wanted, or if I even wanted punctuation. I only knew that I wanted it to look like I had written it. It took five minutes and cost me $60. I do not regret it.

Growing up, neither of my parents, relatives, or friends’ parents had (visible) tattoos. My Dad would always grimace at seeing a colorful sleeve or faded logo on someone else’s skin. He saw tattoos as a fleeting childish fancy that would only be a reminder of age and decay later in life. The worst thing about them was definitely their permanence. I grew to hate the idea of something being irreversibly stabbed into my skin (Ironically, I also hated the idea of change.) I wasn’t scared of needles per, se. The main hold up had always been that I didn’t have something that felt important enough to leave a physical reminder of.

Then my Dad died.

Being underwater felt like the perfect metaphor for my particular brand of grief. I would tell everyone who would listen that it felt like I was drowning — moving in slow motion — witnessing my life but through a barrier — or from a distance. It’s not lost on me that water is the element most commonly associated with emotions, and that phrases such as “I feel flooded,” accompany emotional overload. My whole world had gone to sea during one afternoon, and I needed to find my way back onto dry land.

I needed my outside to match my inside.

I was having trouble feeling like I had roots in anything. Being grounded was not part of my physical vocabulary, and the reminder to trust the processes at work around me was failing. I started having dreams and images of ancient trees, and not just any ones. Banyan trees, specifically. With their hundreds of tendrils continuously reaching from lofty branches to root, and root, and root further into the ground. These are trees hellbent on attaching themselves to the earth, immovable for all eternity.

I’d always heard from tattooed friends that once inked, I would start to want more. Once I knew that I wasn’t going to die, and that I could mentally stand the idea of being punctured a million times with a tiny needle, I started to dream bigger. I wanted a second piece, and I wanted it to represent a continued effort to strengthen my spine — literally and figuratively. The limits of what I could emotionally stand had been seriously tested, and I wanted my outside to match the newfound faith and resilience that I felt within.

Enter the full back piece (pictured above).

Everyone thought I was crazy. I was jumping from a five minute scratch to at least ten hours of physical torture — willingly. But I was resolved. I wanted to find an artist that could do the kind of delicate, hand-drawn detail work that I was looking for, so I started researching artist portfolios on Instagram. I didn’t want to wait two years to book, and I couldn’t pay thousands of dollars, so I decided on Samantha Mancino — an up and coming artist based out of Ink Ink Tattoo, in Venice, CA.

I began to sketch the tree, along with my own representations of the “forces at play” in the universe (see images below). Eventually, I decided on the stages of the moon, as well as the three astrological representations of my personality — Taurus, Pisces, and Aquarius (my sun, rising, and moon signs). We picked a date, I booked flights and an Airbnb a block away from the shop, I requested the time off from work, and began to prepare for a month of intensive rest and healing.

Image rights owned by author.

In hindsight, nothing and no one could have prepared me for that experience. In that way, it mirrored my grief. I sat for a total of nine and a half hours, in three days, over one week. I took acetaminophen, CBD oil, and tinctures of skullcap and California Poppy to calm my nervous system and dull the pain. Even so, I could only last about three hours at a time before my nervous system would call it quits and my whole boy would start to shake. The portions on my spine, ribcage, and pelvis were, by far, the worst, and the all-black sections felt never ending. On top of all this, my body had a strong immune response to the massive amounts of ink being pushed into my bloodstream.

After day one, all I could do was lay in bed watching Netflix, shower very carefully, and order takeout. I felt like I’d been run over by a semi-truck. My whole body hurt, I was exhausted, and it felt like I had a nasty cold coming on. Nonetheless, I kept going back. I was determined to finish it. It felt like something that I had to do. The more I sat through, and the more my body was forced into recovery mode, the more aware I became of how cathartic this experience was for me. I was willingly putting myself through intense pain, emotional turmoil, and physical exhaustion, and it felt right. It felt like I was recreating a traumatic experience in a way that was literally healing me.

Most importantly, I wasn’t doing this for anyone else. The image would be on my back, easily covered by clothing, and only ever visible to those whom I wanted to show it to. I can’t even see it without looking in a mirror. Just knowing it’s there is a constant comfort to me. It acts as a built-in physical representation of all that I have survived, and continue to live through on a daily basis. My steadfastness — my ability to weather any storm — my connection to celestial bodies, and the awe I experience when I look up into the night sky — my bones in the form of constantly growing and changing branches and roots — forever seeking solid ground.

I trust that this happened in exactly the way that it was supposed to. That said, it took nearly three months to fully heal, and it was not an easy transition period. I continue to have no regrets, and I do believe that more ink is on my future horizon — though I don’t have a clear image in mind yet.

At their absolute best, tattoos can offer protection, conclusions, and tributes through the representation of the events or people that made us who we are. In my experience, tattoos are a tool of intention, and should be treated with the weight that they possess. They are painful, expensive, and difficult to remove. The only reason I landed on these two images was because I trusted my intuition and followed what felt right for me. I love that they are now both a physical part of me, and I draw strength and faith from them constantly. I feel grateful for the means and privilege that allowed me to mark myself with these works of art, and in awe of what they allowed me to express and process.

Life Coach & Author. Twitter: @LeighHuggins

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