For some people, tattoos can be a fun form of self-expression and rebellion.  But for artist Paul Booth, tattoos are an opportunity for individuals to confront and overcome their deepest fears.

While the natural instinct for many people is to avoid and suppress unwanted emotions in order to feel better, psychological research suggests that suppression has a paradoxical effect – suppressing one’s emotions can increase, rather than reduce negative affect.  In contrast, acceptance and processing of negative emotions and experiences can improve emotional well-being.

Photo by Paola Duran, used with permission
Source: Photo by Paola Duran, used with permission

Similarly, in Booth’s opinion, the urge to look only on the “bright side” of life can be counterproductive. “I’m a firm believer that you have to take the dark path to face your demons to reach any sort of enlightenment,” Booth told me. “I find people who are obsessed with the positive side of psychology…their nature is like living in denial. I kind of liken the dark side to a junkyard dog.

“If you don’t feed it, it’s going to bite you in the ass.”

And Booth has discovered a unique way as a tattoo artist that he can help people to face their demons; he creates tattoo art based on discussions with his clients about their traumatic or difficult emotional experiences. This approach aligns with research suggesting art therapy as a way to improve psychological distress among people experiencing a range of issues, including trauma, anxiety and depression.

“There are still plenty of people out there who just want a skull. But I like to cater to people with a deeper purpose. I deal with quite a few people who are looking to utilize the tattoo to face their demons,” he said. “I have clients come in who have had re-occurring nightmares and traumas from the past. It’s a way of facing internal conflicts.

“The tattoo becomes an exorcism of sorts.”

For Booth, the key to making tattooing into a therapeutic experience is building trust with his clients, so that they feel comfortable confronting difficult issues and sharing their stories with him.  He feels that one of the keys to building trust is to share his own stories of trauma and abuse with the client, so that they feel they are dealing with someone who understands their pain and struggle.

“I’ve learned that the primary tool is to show that you can be trusted. And the best way to do that is to share with them before they even begin to share with you … by putting myself out there to that degree, they’ll more likely open up to me,” Booth described. “At that point, they will start telling me their story. As they do that, and I pull out of them what the problems really are and where they come from.  At which point, as an artist I visualize these stories and keep them involved in the process of creating the tattoo, so they feel like it is more a part of them.”

Booth understands the importance of building trust based in part on negative experiences he’s had with psychotherapists who he felt were more withholding of personal information and experiences.  He said, “I’ve been going to shrinks for the greater part of my life. And I never had one who would give me that.

“So I always felt that they were more scrutinizing and less relatable.”

Booth feels that the resulting images that he creates based on the stories of his clients creates a window into their soul – an opportunity for them to directly confront their traumas and difficulties.

“By my listening to their stories, I visualize these stories and give it back to them on their skin. And by doing that, it almost creates a vent hole for them,” he explained. “It’s the one time where they can look at that tattoo and it represents something dark from their past. And the pain involved in the tattoo requires the mental process of knowing that you’re depicting your trauma on your skin – it’s definitely a cathartic process.

“It puts that tangible face to that trauma and helps them reach closure.”

Booth feels as though the process of getting art put on one’s skin creates a deeper emotional connection to the image, and therefore, a more healing emotional experience. “I don’t think anything can force you to deal with your issues like a tattoo can. You have to deal with it because you are forced to live with it for the rest of your life,” Booth said. “The tattoo makes a connection that is part of you … when it’s a part of you like a tattoo, it internalizes in a way that really drives it home.

“Hanging a painting on your wall doesn’t have nearly the effect of wearing it as a tattoo.”

Booth looks forward to continuing his work, knowing that there will always be a need for people to confront their trauma and pain.

“The process of facing your demons is universal. I always say, ‘You know that light at the end of the tunnel? It’s a train,’” he said.

“You’re still compelled to walk towards it nonetheless.”

Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow him on Twitter @drmikefriedman.

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