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Body as Canvas: Body Art, Tattoos and Symbolic Healing

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Human beings have been adorning their bodies with art for centuries. From paint and clay to feathers and beads, people have used all sorts of materials to decorate their skin. In more recent years, tattoos and piercings have become increasingly popular forms of body art. From ancient cultures to modern times, humans have used their bodies as canvases to depict their beliefs and stories.

In many cultures, tattoos are considered a form of art. The ancient Egyptians were some of the first to use tattoos for religious reasons. They believed that tattoos would protect them in the afterlife. The ancient Greeks also used tattoos to represent their family crest or to commemorate special occasions. In more recent times, tattoos have been used as a way to promote individuality and one’s own unique identity.

Tattoos and body art are a way of self-expression, and often contain deep symbolism through which we communicate our innermost selves to the world. Tattoos can be simple designs or elaborate works of art, but they all have one thing in common: they are personal. Tattoos can be incredibly meaningful to people, and can tell a story about who they are or what they've been through. For many people, their tattoos are a source of great pride and it can serve as a way to physically represent their emotions, beliefs, and experiences.

Studies have shown that images can be helpful in exploring feelings and memories, and can be a powerful tool in therapy. Tattoos and body art are a way of self-expression, and often contain personal imagery connected to an individual’s life and narrative which may not be initially apparent on the surface. Tattoos can represent anything from personal values and beliefs to significant life experiences. They can also be used to commemorate important moments or signify a change in life direction.

They become snapshots of who we were at a certain point in time, and can act as powerful symbols of healing and transformation. When people come in for therapy, they bring their whole selves with them, mind and body, even when the focus is often placed on exploring the psychological and emotional aspects of the self.

There are many reasons why people get tattoos. While some people view body art as simply a way to express oneself, others see it as a form of symbolic healing. In art therapy, we often look to the image as an external source of information connected to one’s inner world.

Consider what it might feel like to be ‘seen’ from an outward perspective. To be able to share emotional content and parts of ourselves with others from their own curiosity about our personal symbols. This can often build stronger connections as it can feel good to be noticed and to share significant parts of our journey with others. When we engage the images and symbols that each person carries with them, we are also engaging parts of themselves that have been intentionally placed outwardly.

Having run therapeutic art therapy sessions that focus on the topic of tattoos, I found that often we are looking for ways to share our own lived experiences with others while also searching for ways to process what we have lived, what we have lost and what we have cherished. Dates, portraits, and symbols become a means through which we can express our pain for having lost a loved one or the joy that we experienced at the birth of a child. It can even be helpful to consider what type of tattoo one would want to get even if it does not become physically attached.

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