Is Tattoo Addiction Real?

Updated November 1, 2022
 woman with many tattoos and short dark hair is posing sitting at wooden bar counter

Are tattoos an addiction? Maybe have a friend that always seems to be getting new body art. Perhaps you are always looking for new spots on your body for ink. You might have a family member who can't pass by a tattoo shop without going inside. Is this simply a love of tattoos, or are they addicted?

Whether or not people are becoming addicted to tattoos has become a topic of discussion in psychology in recent years. While research is limited, experts can lend some insight into whether tattoos are a passion or an addiction.

Is Tattoo Addiction Real?

While there isn't a clear clinical definition, the term "tattoo addiction" would seem to describe people who get multiple tattoos or those with full-body tattoos, possibly acquired in a short period of time. But is tattoo addiction real? Tattoos are becoming more and more popular, so it is not unusual to see people with a lot of them.

If you turn on the television, you're likely to find reality shows featuring people covered from head to toe in tattoos. There are even shows solely focused on tattoos, like Miami Ink, Ink Master, and Tattoos After Dark; the list goes on and on.

An article published in the World Journal of Psychology (WJP) says that 24% of people in the U.S. have tattoos. In fact, tattooing is a growing industry, and tattooing is becoming more mainstream than it once was, according to the International Journal of Innovative Science and Research Technology. But is tattooing a clinical addiction? The answer isn't an easy one.

What Is Addiction?

One of the greatest debates regarding whether tattoo addiction is real revolves around the term "addiction" itself. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a complex interaction of brain circuits, genetics, and experiences that causes a person to pursue a particular action or substance because of the reward or relief brought on by the particular substance or behavior.

Addiction goes beyond an occasional desire for a substance or behavior and it even goes beyond a need or craving to do the behavior. Addiction impacts a person in a way that causes significant problems in their life and relationships. For example, spending rent money to get a tattoo or getting a tattoo despite potential health concerns.

Tattoo Motivation: Is It Healthy or Not?

So determining if tattoo addiction is real comes down to the question: is it just a passion or is it truly an addiction? Answering that question is hard because this is a fairly unexplored area of addiction, according to an article titled Tattoos as Behavioral Addiction. The behavior needs to meet certain criteria to be considered an addiction.

So, it's important to look at the different motivations behind tattoos to see if there is a possibility that you, or someone you know, might need help. Many times, choosing to get a tattoo (or many tattoos) is driven by thoughtful motivation rather than simply a need to satisfy a craving at any cost. But other times the reasoning behind a decision to get a tattoo is fleeting and may not be healthy.

Self-Expression & Art Form

Tattoos have been around for a long time. Some of the earliest examples of tattoos were about 2000 B.C. in Egypt. Similar to their use today, tattoos have been used by people as a way to decorate their bodies and build their self-esteem or beauty.

In fact, a 2011 study by Viren Swami showed that tattoos helped to improve self-esteem and body-related attitudes. Many people within the study found that tattoos helped to improve their body appearance anxiety immediately after obtaining the tattoo and once it heals. This appreciation also played a part in getting further tattoos.

Additionally, the WJP article pointed out that people usually do not get tattoos impulsively. In a study of college students, it was noted that most took months to plan out their tattoo design.

Tattoos as Therapy

Another aspect of the motivation behind tattoos is healing or therapy. Think about the reality show Ink Shrinks. Here, tattoos are used to help people find closure or heal. Often tattoos created by tattoo artists are in remembrance of a loved one or to cover up a scar.

Sometimes, people just get tattoos that will motivate or inspire them to move forward. There's nothing better than a big motivational reminder that 'you've got this.' It will never leave, never let you down, and it's always there to tell you, you can do it.

Endorphin Rush

While it's no secret that tattoos hurt, there is also no denying that getting a tattoo is a rush. The moment the needle hits your skin, and sometimes even before, you have a rush of adrenaline that courses through you. However, what exactly is the rush?

As a response to the pain, your body releases endorphins into the bloodstream to relieve the pain, according to Cleveland Clinic. The job of endorphins is the block nerve cells to stop the pain. Endorphins also boost dopamine in your system, giving you that 'high.'

The high is similar to those that you get from exercise, sex, or even drugs. You feel euphoric. And this is where addiction might come into play since addiction is defined as a behavior that becomes compulsive and is continued despite harmful consequences. Tattoos as Behavioral Addiction points to harmful consequences that are ignored, including infection and cost.

Self-Harm

Tattoos were labeled by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as a form of potential self-harm. In addition to the rush, someone might find the blood or pain associated with tattoos soothing. They might use tattoos as a way to soothe themselves or feel in control. In this case, treatment might be necessary to understand the underlying cause.

So, is tattoo addiction real? The short answer is maybe. Like anything else, tattoos can become an addiction. However, there really isn't enough research into tattoos and their addictive qualities to state that tattoo addiction is a real, clinical disorder.

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Is Tattoo Addiction Real?