In 2018, when I was 29, I was walking on the beach in Uvita, Costa Rica and came across a beautiful seashell in my favorite shade of purple. The shell was delicate and thin, yet it had been a solid home for a mollusk — a home the creature took everywhere it went. A few days later, I inked the shell onto my right wrist. I saw myself in it: My body is my home, too. It has taken me across the globe to over 60 countries, and while it has provided me with safety, it’s also delicate.
I was raped when I was 15 years old; I had never had sex before. The predator who did this to me took advantage of my kindness, shattering my ability to be gentle to others, and even to myself. For a decade after, I associated vulnerability and openness with weakness. When I see my shell tattoo, I’m reminded that there’s strength in delicacy, and beauty in fragility. My rapist no longer holds power over my ability to be gentle.
In total, I wear 30 tattoos, and each one has deeply personal meaning, mostly centering on empowerment. The first tattoo I got was my sun sign, Libra, on my right ankle; the shell was 19th tattoo. I don’t know what I’ll get next, or what tattoo will be my last. Many of my tattoos serve as a way of reclaiming my identity, my body, and my narrative beyond being a survivor of sexual violence, so they’re a story I hope never ends.
Body art has proved to be an incredibly useful healing tool for many people who have traumatic experiences, particularly sexual assault. “Sexual assault severely violates a person's sense of control and autonomy over their own body,” says Suzanna Chen, MD, a psychiatrist based in New York City. “Survivors sometimes use tattoos to regain control after feeling powerless.” One 2018 study, for instance, examined people’s motivations for getting a tattoo after a sexual trauma, and found that getting inked can be “a therapeutic process.” The tattoo acts “as a visual representation of a personal narrative” and offers “bodily reclamation and cathartic release,” wrote the study authors.
Ultimately, Dr. Chen stresses that tattoos alone aren’t a sufficient alternative to therapy after a traumatic event. But, she says, they can serve as a type of art therapy. “Tattoos are a form of artistic expression,” she explains. “The body becomes the canvas. Deciding on a tattoo related to the trauma and getting it involves confrontation and changing narratives. The choice of powerful images or words can redefine self-identity from victim to survivor. With the support of a therapist, this can lead to healing.”
Landon Funk, for example, chose to have Medusa tattooed on her inner bicep. In Greek mythology, after Poseidon raped Medusa in a temple of Athena, the goddess was so enraged at the sacrilege that she cursed Medusa, turning her hair into snakes. But, the curse was also a blessing of sorts, as it gave Medusa the power to turn people — specifically dangerous men — into stone with one glance. “Medusa, seen as a monster, gives me strength. Women are often labeled as monsters, nasty women, hysterical, for expressing their emotions, speaking their truth, and standing up for themselves. Medusa protects herself and embodies protection,” Funk says. “Looking at my Medusa gives me hope, strength, and agency that I wouldn’t have had I not gotten the tattoo.”
Many survivors find that their tattoos become meaningful and strength-giving symbols. One of the most recognizable tattoos for sexual assault survivors is the Fire Rose Unity Survivor Tattoo. Lady Gaga popularized the design when she got it placed on her back, shortly after her 2016 Oscar performance, during which 50 sexual assault survivors joined her on stage, including the creator of the tattoo. Many of the other survivors from that performance also got the tattoo, and it continues to be a popular design.
Marlee Liss, who put the symbol on her right wrist, got the tattoo with a friend she met in a rape survivor support group. Before getting the tattoo, Liss questioned if wearing such a well-known design would “brand” her as a survivor. Ultimately, though, making the decision to get it helped her realize there’s no shame in being a survivor. “Now it’s truly a symbol that my body is for me and I’m proud to be where I’m at in my healing,” Liss says.
“It’s about transmutation — turning something so hateful into a symbol of my reclamation, healing, and solidarity with other survivors,” she continues. During a preliminary trial with her assailant, she would touch her tattoo for strength, and to remind herself that she wasn’t not alone. Later, when she met her attacker in an eight-hour restorative justice circle, she held her hand on the tattoo and felt the strength of other survivors supporting her.
Getting tattooed — and the pain required to do so — can be physically healing, as well. Dr. Chen states that because trauma can be stored in the body, body art can help a survivor process their trauma and heal from it. I have a high pain-threshold — often having trouble identifying when I’m even feeling pain — which may be a result of my trauma. For me, getting tattooed is a cathartic experience that makes me feel alive; the physical pain helps me release the emotional pain, and afterward, I have something beautiful to cherish.
“The pain of getting a tattoo is enough to bring you into the present moment, to help you focus on the experience, the ritual, and make a memory,” says Annalise Oatman, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist based in San Francisco. Oatman has a tattoo of a boxer on the inside of her right arm. “It symbolizes the rapes and my integration of the qualities I need, within myself, to honor and protect myself,” she says. Getting the tattoo was a “magical ritualization” of embodying her own strength, resilience, and recovery. Oatman describes getting tattoos as an annexation of the sacred land of her body back into the hands of its true sovereign ruler — herself. She has found that the body art was an adjunct to the healing work she did with therapists.
Emily O’Neill, on the other hand, says she didn’t feel any pain while getting tattooed — she felt freedom. Her tattoo is of a gun and the words “turn your wounds into wisdom” on her right upper thigh. “After being raped, I wanted to take my body back. My decision, with my consent,” she explains. “The tattoo represents my strength and resilience. The gun represents taking my power back. I’ll defend myself no matter what.”
While tattoos aren’t the only way for people who have experienced sexual assault to heal from the experience, getting inked has been a crucial step in the journey from feeling like a victim to feeling like a survivor for the people with whom I spoke — and for myself. Tattoos remind us that we choose what to do with our bodies. We choose how to adorn them, how to celebrate them, and who we share them with. We reclaim our bodily autonomy by decorating them how we please, and the pleasure is all ours.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).