Tattoos, body piercings and self-harm – is there a link?

Some people say cutting their skin brings them relief from emotional pain – an act usually referred to as self-harm. Others enjoy having their body pierced with metal and their skin inscribed with permanent ink. Is there a link between these acts? According to the German psychologists Aglaja Stirn and Andreas Hinz, in some cases there might well be.

The researchers collaborated with the body modification magazine Taetowiermagazin, recruiting 432 of their readers to complete a comprehensive questionnaire about their tattooing and piercing practices and motives.

One hundred and nineteen of the participants admitted to cutting themselves in childhood. That’s 27 per cent of the sample – a much higher proportion than is found among the general population of Germany: 0.75 per cent.

Compared with the readers who said they had never self-harmed, those who had were more likely to report “bad things” having happened in their lives, and to say they had previously had a bad relationship with their own body.

Moreover, the self-harmers reported that they often had their skin tattooed or body pierced to help overcome a negative experience, or simply to experience physical pain. Another clue that self-harm and piercing/tattooing might, in some cases, be linked, derives from the fact that many of the self-harmers said they had ceased cutting themselves after obtaining their first piercing or tattoo.

Stirn and Hinz concluded that most people who partake in body modification clearly do not do it because they have any psychological problems. “However,” they continued, “because body modifications have become so common and accessible, they are also used with probably increasing frequency as a convenient means to either realise psychopathological inclinations, such as self-injury, or to overcome psychological traumas.”

Stirn, A., Hinz, A. (2008). Tattoos, body piercings, and self-injury: Is there a connection? Investigations on a core group of participants practicing body modification. Psychotherapy Research, 18(3), 326-333. DOI: 10.1080/10503300701506938

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related Digest item.
Link to related research.
Link to BPS leaflet on self-harm.

15 thoughts on “Tattoos, body piercings and self-harm – is there a link?”

  1. The link between self harming and body modification may be more complex than this study would suggest. One possible reason for the use of permanent ink could be to hide the scars from self-harming.

  2. I too gurt myself, but then I got a tattoo of a knife so now it's like I have something permanently stabbing my skin. And I also have a kitten. yay!!

  3. I stumbled across this while trying to discover if my experience during my first tattoo was typical or not. I have a history of cutting, but I've been recovered (if there is such a thing) for more than a decade. My tattoo, a beautiful tribal phoenix, represents the control I'm taking of my body, and it was empowering to retake those scars and finally be proud of myself. But when the needle hit my skin, the intensity of the rush nearly took my breath away. I'm sure it'd be like an alcoholic having a drink after a long period of sobriety or a drug addict taking pills after many years of healthy living. It was so intense and so crazy good. I felt guilty feeling like that, but at the same time, my tattoo makes me feel so strong, stronger than any desire to cut. I can just look down at it and remember why I have it.

  4. I cam across this whilst trying to research for a dissertation that I am writing on the topic. I have a history of self harm and have a tattoo planned. Is there a link? My conclusion is that Body art and Self Modification are a form of self expression but by using self harm to get there. Does anyone else agree?

  5. What many people assume is that tattoos and piercings are only for those who can endure much pain – which is not totally true. Others do this to make a statement while there are also those who want to beautify their bodies further. Your post is very interesting and I am sure that readers will find this informative as well. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I love your earrings! I've just noticed your lip and monroe piercing on the photos above but I would have never really noticed if it wasn't for you pointing it out! I love piercings, at least they can heal up if you don't like them, unlike tattoos (I still want one!)

  7. agreed, this is an area that needs to be looked at far more closely. my daughter self harms (as I did) and Ive agreed to pay for her first tattoo as this is a method I have used to prevent myself from harming. interesting subject area.

  8. The way we dress, have our hair, do our make-up etc. changes over the years as we grow as individuals. To me someone who has more than a couple of tattoos/piercings is saying they are NEVER going to change i.e. never have any personal growth, that they will ALWAYS like the markings they have put on their bodies. Whilst I can understand a couple of marks because earring scars or a tattoo can be looked upon with an affectionate nostalgia of the expression of youth, several self made marks are a permanency of self image that I can't see as healthy as we are meant to change in looks as we age.

  9. I agree with the article in that some people will have underlying issues, however there are many reasons for wanting a tattoo, I have outgrown my simple 90's tattoos and am having them lasered and replacing them with complex floral artwork, they are an expression of me, I don't have the ability to paint so I get someone else to express my creativity through their talent.

  10. It depends on the tattooing experience, for example, getting one small piece would be, just that, whereas continually going for sittings with a growing piece that is going on for years is not just about getting a tattoo. I more or less have the whole of my right side tattooed..this wasn't initially planned, I discovered that I got a release from the experience of pain whilst having a sitting and it obliterates my emotional pain which I feel I have no control over and don't know how to express which stems from not being able to express myself as a child from an abusive family, and also, the tattooing pain I choose and have control over so its like taking control of the emotion anguish that I don't have control of by replacing it…hard to explain!

  11. Would you modify with tattoos or piercing a perfect work of art, i.e., David's sculpture by Michaelangelo? I don't think so! that sculpture is perfect! and so our bodies! I personally don't like tattoos or piercing. Respectfully,mov

  12. I agree with you too. I self harmed as a child and now use tattoos to cover them up. I also have had issues with my body and confidence, especially after having 2 large children who left my stomach covered in stretch marks so to improve my confidence i'm getting a tattoo to cover some of those. This is a very inspiring paper.

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