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What Do Tattoos Mean?

What tattoos reveal about relationships, past and present.

By Max Belkin, Ph.D.

Tattoos blossom at the crossroads of bodies and art, the physical and the imaginary. Their colors, shapes, and symbols pulsate with memories, meanings, and emotions. Above all, body art captures and reveals unspoken aspects of human relationships, both past and present.

“My body is a memorial,” says Amalia, a Peruvian-born woman in her mid-30s. “I have a tattoo for every loved one who died. At the same time, I am still not sure what to make of this one.” She removes her sock and shows me “?!” tattooed on the back of her ankle. While she is showing me her tattoo, I am thinking to myself, “She is revealing her Achilles heel to me.”

Tattoos often represent thoughts and feelings that we have not spoken about or acknowledged, even to ourselves. As Amalia puts it: “I had this image in my head, but I could not express it in words.” Since both art and dreams trade in symbols and imagination, I approach tattoos the same way I work with patients’ dreams and fantasies. I ask people to describe the thoughts, experiences, and emotions linked to their tattoos; I invite them to reflect on their past and present relationships with others and with themselves.

For example, Amalia’s first tattoo of three intertwined roses represents her close-knit family: her mother, her sister, and herself. Amalia’s mother was cremated, and her ashes scattered over the ocean; there is no graveside to visit. So this tattoo has become a celebration of her mother’s life, a way of saying “thank you” to her, and a visceral, corporeal connection to her.

The tattoo that symbolizes Amalia’s mother, sister, and herself allows Amalia to incorporate (in Latin, corpus means “body”) her mother into herself. It captures and preserves the memory of her mother’s love, along with the emotional bond between them.

As it is often the case with body art, exploring Amalia’s thoughts and feelings surrounding the tattoo illuminates the emotional complexity of her relationship with her mother. Amalia describes her mother as a controlling woman who believed that only “goths and punks” tattoo their bodies. She would not have approved of Amalia’s tattoo, so Amalia kept it out of other people’s sight by putting it on her stomach.

My empathy and curiosity allow Amelia to tap into, articulate, the tension between her positive and negative feelings toward her mother. Helping Amalia access her negative emotions toward her dead mother is not easy. It unleashes shame, guilt, and anxiety.

I ask her to describe her experience of designing her tattoo and invite her to ponder its aesthetic appeal and symbolic meaning. I say to Amalia, “Imagine that you and I are in the tattoo parlor together. Could you please describe to me the image that you have in mind? What emotions is it bringing up for you? What is it like to make it part of yourself?”

Although tattoos are permanent, their meanings evolve. As Amalia continues to grow and change, her perception of her tattoos evolve as well. My job is to rekindle her imagination and curiosity, to explore the emotional and thematic links between her tattoos.

While discussing the experiences that gave birth to her tattoos, Amalia begins to connect the meaning of her first tattoo (the three roses that express the closeness between her, her mother, and her sister) to her “?!” tattoo. It turns out that Amalia got “?!” tattooed above her Achilles heel several months after the break up of her marriage. It is not a coincidence that Amalia got that tattoo on Christmas Day as it happens to be the anniversary of her mother’s death, a time she was feeling particularly vulnerable. In Amalia’s words, “It was the time when I felt lost and confused. I hate not knowing. I had no goal, no partner, and no path.”

Sharing the emotional significance of her tattoos with me allows Amalia to link the pain of losing her mother to the sadness around the break-up of her marriage, to reflect on the importance of her friendships, and to acknowledge her personal growth. In the course of our exploration Amalia looks at me and says, “I appreciate people in my life more. It helps tolerate the uncertainty; it helps me appreciate life a bit more.”

In the context of our growing relationship, Amalia and I closely examine the experiences captured in her tattooed images and articulate their emotional underpinnings. By sharing her grief about her deceased mother and her lost marriage, Amalia opens herself and offers me her trust. I tell her that I am honored to be her partner in this difficult search for a new path.

Max Belkin, Ph.D., is a relational psychoanalyst and psychologist. He is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. He works with individuals and couples in his private offices in Greenwich Village, New York City, and in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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