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

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