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Tattooing: A celebration of self

Philippa Moss

Tattooing is among humanity’s earliest and most ubiquitous art forms.

Cultures from every habitable continent have embedded permanent dyes onto their bodies for more than 5000 years — as status symbols, rites of passage, or simply personal decoration. That tradition continues today, just with a much smaller chance of infection.

Walking down an average street in Canberra, I think maybe every third person has a tattoo. Both my children have already considered the ink, they have designed ideas and given real thought to where and why and how. I’d probably even dare to say it is more common to have a tattoo than not.

I had my first tattoo when I was thirty – designed by my ex-husband and inked by the famous artist eX de Medici. Since my first, almost 20 years ago, I have had a few more. So the question I often ponder, do I want even more? Is it an addiction or a passion or for others a drunken decision on a crazy night out?

I’m not talking about the spiritual, ritual, tribal or symbolic nature of tattooing. I am talking about the commonality of tattooing in Australian society today. However when it comes to tattoos, there are several significant psychological, physiological and even social elements that come into play.

During the process of getting a tattoo, endorphins flood the body in response to the pain caused by the needles. The effects of endorphins are powerful; they are also associated with other activities that create a natural “high” like exercise and orgasms.

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The pain of being tattooed might also be an intoxicating element that draws some people in time and time again.  Some people believe that self-mutilation and self-injury is a form of addiction. Those who engage in this practice often find a sense of control when causing them pain, finding it therapeutic to use physical pain in an attempt to relieve emotional or mental stress. It is possible that some have become addicted to self-injury in the form of tattoos, finding their only solace through the pain of the tattoo needle and as a result getting addicted to getting tattoos.

Is it about attention seeking? Well depending on what I am wearing, I can choose to show off my tattoos and sometimes I will ensure they are visible just to get a reaction and perhaps attention. Other times, I hide them to avoid potential judgment.

Could tattoos be considered a form of therapy? For some people a tattoo holds far deeper meaning than just self-expression. They can be a way of attempting to undo past wrongs or as a means of purging negative emotions. For a person reluctant to pursue more traditional forms of therapy, or lacking in a personal support system, the therapeutic qualities of body modification could become a compelling substitute.

Though perhaps not inclusive of everyone who bears body ink, a thriving tattoo culture exists. The growing cultural acceptance of body art combined with increasing media exposure has created an insurgency of tattoo related art and artists. There is an ever-expanding sector of tattoo culture that is comprised of the artists who consider the human body to be their medium.

For me it is a form of self-expression and a permanent and penetratingly satisfying way to express on the outside how I feel about myself on the inside. My life changed in my thirties and the ink is one of the defining elements of my identity and my connection with a sub-culture, a community and with a celebration of self.

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Philippa Moss

Philippa Moss is a HIV activist, professional feminist and best known for her outspoken voice promoting healthy public policy and healthy urban development. Philippa has been a happy resident of Canberra for the past 17 years. Originally from Sydney, she came to Canberra at a pivotal stage in her life. She is a proud mother of two children, a son and daughter in their teens/twenties, who as a Queer parent has always felt a part of Canberra’s greater Lesbian, Gay and Queer community. She was recently appointed the Executive Director of the AIDS Action Council (ACT), after acting in the role for the past two years. In 2015 she was awarded the ACT Telstra Business Women’s Award for Purpose and Social Enterprise, along with the Australian Institute of Management’s Not for Profit Manager of the Year (ACT) award. More about the Author

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