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Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

Are Tattoos Addictive?

Who ever gets enough life?

 Public Domain CC0.
Source: Photographer: Ron Porter from Essex, UK License: Public Domain CC0.

A magazine writer shot me a note asking if I think tattoos can be addictive. Are tattoos like potato chips—you can’t stop after the first one? Does the process of needling pigments under your skin make you crave more?

I can see why the idea of addiction would appeal to someone feeling ambivalent about adding another tattoo, since addiction could mean there’s a strong, even irresistible psychophysiological force at work. That could help to rationalize a positive decision that you really wanted to make anyway. Or alternatively, the idea of addiction might reinforce a negative choice by giving you a significant challenge to resist.

The idea of addictive tattoos makes most sense, I think, if we back up a step and consider the appetite for more life that's built into us. All sorts of arts, from cooking and costume to story-telling, promise to make us feel more alive, more fulfilled, more meaningful. Tattoos are one form of art that some people feel makes them more beautiful, more significant, more alive. They draw attention, and attention can boost self-esteem and substantiate you, even if you’re mostly imagining other people’s responses. It’s the shared enchantment of art.

The problem is, no art is perfect. And enchantment always needs its batteries recharged. After awhile all new art loses its magic and relaxes into habit. Yesterday’s sensation becomes a frozen classic or just another billboard cluttering the highway. Today's fabulous sports record is tomorrow's past glory. This is one reason that fashions change and cable TV gushes about “makeovers.” Given our appetite for more life, a makeover retouches the aging face. It’s like reincarnation: a dream of starting over again, with the rapture of childhood. But like other art, makeovers have a stale date.

When you spot the stale date, the familiar tattoo becomes haunting. You could regret it, but that would be painful and remind you that life—love, sex, dessert—is always getting stale.

So two choices draw you forward. If a tattoo has been a major source of enchantment for you, you can try to recapture or improve that feeling by adding another, even more breathtaking tattoo. And then later, maybe another. And another. Or you can refresh your taste for the tattoo and the life you already have. That would involve trying to rethink and refeel who you are, creating a substitute for what you miss, or coming up with a fresh story for your life.

This way of looking at the problem suggests that an addiction to tattoos can be a sign that someone's stuck, wanting to feel more significant and more alive, but inclined to think of beauty as a thing rather than as an imaginative experience. But things wear out. And the appetite for more life is endless. It’s the way we’re built. As Ernest Becker says, Who ever gets enough life? Enough love, beauty, sex, good food, etc? You want enough appetite to stay creative, but not so much that it keeps you running like a rat on wheel.

Analyzing a sample of 360 people, found that most were age 18-21 when they added the tattoo they came to regret. At that age you're on the threshold of adulthood competing with everyone for self-esteem and status. The body is signaling its maximum fertility and appetite for life. Men regretted tattoos on biceps and calves: the conspicuous muscles whose boast of strength could be embarrassing on second thought. The higher your education level, the more cautious you are about trying to make abstract ideas and feelings more real by inking them on your skin. After all, the attempt to make wishes, fears, and other thoughts physically real is (sigh) magic.

Some people think there's an addictive endorphin and adrenaline rush while getting a tattoo. That suggests a neurophysiological force that could oversway a conscious choice. But there’s usually an interpretive aspect to behavior. At the dentist’s office, one person may think it's a boring nuisance, while the other interprets the experience as a battlefield. When some people say "It wasn't as painful as I expected," they’re telling us they overcame an ordeal they anticipated.

People do sometimes inflict pain on themselves because they feel pain makes experience feel sharper and more meaningful. Think of Shia Muslims and medieval saints flagellating themselves, Christians focusing on the agony of crucifixion, or tribal initiation rites. Or less grandly, think of your friend who undergoes a regular Brazilian bikini wax job—ouch—because she feels it intensifies sexual feeling. But the meaning matters. If you brave pain adding another tattoo, you can regard the tattoo as proof of your courage and make the experience more memorable and valuable to you—and visible to others. If the memory of it fades, so does the meaning.

We’re constantly using art to adapt to shifty life. But art, from kitchen design to poetry, has a competitive quality. Since art likes an audience, you can turn it into a commodity hawked in ads. Wisdom tries to keep life from turning into a clichéd beauty pageant by arguing that beauty’s only skin deep. What’s authentic—presumably some sort of truer art—is inside and not a dead item in a catalog. The leader who brags about his trophy wives or his palaces could be thrusting a tattoo in your face, demanding you worship his idols and, by the way, him. He expects brandname beauty not to stir up a conversation, but awe. He’s advertising more life, trying to compel your admiration. You can see why people so often bow down to leaders and defend them to the death: like God or a parent, leaders seem to be offering more life.

When advertising manipulates, it tries to force a reaction and falsifies the spirit of a relationship. If you become more concerned with the number of your Facebook friends than the quality of your relationships, advertising yourself may be falsifying you.

This is true for tattoos as well. Or as Granny might’ve said: Are we only skin deep?

Resources used in this essay:

Casino. org, "Odds of Regretting a Tattoo:

Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn

Kirby Farrell,…


——, ​The Psychology of Abandon

Dan Liechy, ed. The Ernest Becker Reader


About the Author

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D., is the author of The Psychology of Abandon. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 


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