Considering a Tattoo? These Are the Best Reasons & Best Times to Get One

amy shapiro tattoo

People get tattoos for many reasons, including "just because." Though when and what we get tattooed on our bodies could help us heal after going through a difficult time in our lives. What to get tattooed on our often takes a lot of thought -- and there is a psychology behind it. Why do we get tattoos? What does it all really mean?


We get tattoos after surviving a difficult time.

Dr. Jeanette Raymond, psychologist, psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don't, called tattoos "psychological armor." "One of my clients used the idea of getting a particular tattoo by saving up money as a reward for having survived a tough time in his marriage. For him, it was a symbol of self-care, of making personal choices and displaying pride in himself -- as a badge of honor."

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I have gotten tattooed after going through a difficult time in my life. For me, it was part of my healing process, it strengthened me. Kristin Misik is an "inner confidence coach" and acupuncturist who shared, "The meaning behind the tattoo provides a deeper sense of connection to whatever is represented, whether it is a person, place, time, value, desire or belief. Tattoos serve as reminders and affirmations of who we are, where we are from, our values and connectivity to life. It is this deeper sense of connectivity and meaning which nurtures our sense of faith and confidence."

We get tattoos as part of a grieving process and to honor loved ones who have passed away.

Amy Shapiro (seen above tattooing her sister) is a tattoo artist at East Side Ink in NYC. She shared: "One [tattoo] that really stuck with me was tattooing a young lady who lost her husband to cancer about a year before she came to see me. She got a full-color bird in flight on her thigh. She was just so full of love, and gratitude, and in her mourning process had done a lot of writing and made a lot of art to heal. So by the time she came to me, she was in a place where she felt she was beginning to move forward. Being around someone who went through something so devastating, but could pick up the pieces, use her emotions to make art, and bring such a warm, loving presence to her daily interactions was a great reminder of the resilience and strength of the human spirit."

I have a beautiful clematis flower tattooed on my shoulder for my friend Mike who passed away. The flower bloomed shortly after his passing, and at a time when it was too early for this flower to be blooming. It was magic, I thought. I learned that the flower had meaning -- it was called "traveler's joy" and to me that meant that Mike left this world to travel on to somewhere beautiful.

We get tattoos for love.

My friend Lori and I have a matching moon and stars tattoo. We knew we wanted matching tattoos but it wasn't until the morning of the day we got the tattoo that we decided on exactly what we were getting. It's small and fun and when I look at it, it makes me smile. It's a symbol of our friendship, and makes me know that even though we live far away from each other, we are always right there for one another.

I also have two matching tattoos with my fiance. It may just look like a flower and a luna moth to some, but to us, the meaning is deeper and personal. The flower is from Tom Petty's Wildflowers album and song, which holds special meaning. And the luna moth is a symbol of re-birth. We were starting a new life together, and had gone through a lot prior to meeting. The luna moth symbolized our strength and the beauty to get through it all.

"Some of my favorite tattoos are spontaneous things I got with friends," said Amy. Even though they may be small, they still make me feel good when I see them and bring back great memories. To me, every tattoo has meaning, and part of what I love about this career is that I get to help bring someone's idea to life."

flower tattoo amy shapiro

We get tattoos for fun.

I have some tattoos that are more design-driven and I worked with an artist to create something that looked pretty in the spot I was getting tattooed. It's meaning is purely decorative. "Sometimes you just need a little tattoo therapy!" Amy (who created the flower tattoo above) said. "Go get something small or fun that will make you happy."

When and where to get tattoos.

Amy shared, "I think tattoos can be very helpful in transitional times, but definitely consider placement and subject matter. If it's in a very visible spot, would you be comfortable with people asking you about it all the time? If you want to keep it private, consider getting it in a more hidden spot where you can see it but it's not constantly on display.

Be careful making decisions that could potentially affect your future, like getting something in a highly visible spot. [Taking] some time to grieve after a major life change, like a death or breakup, will give you more time to heal and then plan something that you'll be happy with."

She also said that the best time to get tattooed is when you are prepared, financially and emotionally. "It has to be the right thing, the right artist, and the right time. When these elements come together, you'll know it's a good idea."

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Why do we get tattooed at all?

Dr. Michael T. Paff, instructor of psychology at Iona College sees tattoos "as one manifestation of a drive, which originates in childhood and intensifies in adolescence, towards differentiation." This resonates with me as I recall my first tattoo. Tattoos weren't as common then, and I wanted one to express myself, to have art on my skin that was special to me. I felt it was like a permanent jewelry, a symbol that added to who I was. Dr. Paff gave more insight into that manifestation of thought:

Children can be imaginative, but are not cognitively capable of true abstract thinking and idealism. This means that their thoughts about who they are and who they want to be are not necessarily connected to concrete reality. Adolescents, however, gain the ability to think in abstract and idealistic terms. So, for the first time, they can think realistically about who they are, who they want to be, and what their values are. 

So many of us get tattoos of things we loved as kids like characters from books and fairytales. And many of us start getting tattooed as soon as we are able. I put my first tattoo on my credit card that took me forever to pay off. Worth it? Absolutely.

Dr. Paff notes that tattoos are healthy expressions. Though he notes how we are certainly more impulsive in our younger years so we may make rash decisions about tattoos when we first start getting them. But he cautioned that parents should not "condemn this self-expression, but to see it as a completely developmentally necessary process. I think adults should provide more guidance to adolescents about how to discover what their values are and how they want to express themselves. This way, they are less likely to regret their modes of expression later. Ultimately, the stereotype of adolescents as hormonally-driven, unthinking, creatures is just that -- a stereotype. Most adolescents progress onto young adulthood without engaging in serious, high-risk behaviors. Most of them make it okay."

As with anything with children, having good communication is key. The drive to express ourselves, and how we express ourselves, begins when we begin -- it shapes who we are into adulthood. Tattoos are part of that expression, and it's a creative one. Tattoos are art and the body is the canvas. There are so many beautiful expressions of art, and tattoos are one of them.

Kristin added, "While there are myriad reasons why people get tattooed, one thing is universally true: Every tattoo means something to the person it's on."

She's right. While someone may have a tattoo of what another person sees as "just a flower," that flower could symbolize the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, or the love someone has for another. It's not just ink on skin. We get tattoos for fun, for love, to heal, for inner peace, for our beliefs, and they can nurture our confidence, our sense of self. They are our personal expressions, an art.

Tattoos really mean so many different things to so many different people, and it's an art form that should be respected. We all have our own personal journey in this life and tattoos are symbols of our times.

What do your tattoos symbolize?


Images via Amy Shapiro

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