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From Marilyn Manson to anti-mask: What happens when your tattoo starts to mean something else?

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’ve always wanted a tattoo. I was a bit of a skater kid, and a punk rock teenager, and I have been on enough foreign trips to excuse a cheeky gap-year-style tat in a back-alley boudoir.

But alas, my fear of needles has prevented me from getting a badass sleeve. Not a great fear to have in a coronavirus pandemic, I might add, with vaccinations on the telly 24 hours a day, but I digress. I’ve held friends’ hands as they’ve winced on the parlour bed, enviously watching their bodies turn from pale to Escheresque, while trying not to pass out when clapping eyes on the sharp vibrating point.

But this week I’m eternally grateful I missed out on the whole process, and my sympathy is with you ex-Marilyn Manson fans – specifically the ones who have his whole face etched on their bodies - after abuse allegations led to his record label dropping him. Manson has denied the allegations, but it so easily could have been me with a tattoo that might end up having very different associations.

I've less sympathy, though, for those who get love effigies on their arms and split up (awkward for Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa), and perhaps some of us should have done a bit of Sanskrit proofreading before trusting a total stranger with an indelible skin gun (David Beckham, I’m looking at you), but compassion where it's due, some events are harder to predict.

Case in point, news recently came out about one woman’s unfortunate early 2020 true-to-herself tattoo, which reads: “Courageously & radically refuse to wear a mask”. Her attempt to remind herself of the metaphorical dangers of “wearing a mask” on your personality couldn’t be less compliant with the legally enforced mask-wearing mandates to come.

But despite the inherent risks of permanence, tattoo fashion is not slowing down – the market is worth a staggering $1bn (£717m), according to IBIS World. Around 46 per cent of Americans and 40 per cent of people in the UK have at least one tattoo.

Millennials supposedly have more tattoos than any other age group in history. So, it follows, the more tattoos the more removals. Between 2011 and 2018, tattoo removals increased by 32 per cent and according to a survey by Advanced Dermatology, three out of four people regret getting at least one of their tattoos. So what to do when your tattoo no longer seems as great an idea as it once did?

If you can’t remove the tattoo, you can put in place, as a compensatory measure, a different way of thinking about it

If you don't want to live in long sleeves or trousers for the rest of time, cover-up experts are pricey but a possibility – if you have the cash and trust them to make it even bigger with a new design. Or you could opt for an uncomfortable removal process requiring 10 or more sessions, often resulting in raised rashes, bleeding and scabs, and a bill of £50 to £1,000, depending on the size of the tattoo. “It's quite common to have some ink left in the skin,” states NHS advice, “skin may become temporarily darker or paler than the surrounding skin”.

If tattoo removal is not financially feasible, your hated ink could be treated like a form of body dysmorphia, and there are ways to deal with the negativity and worry that grows every time you see it, explains east London psychotherapist Petra Amos*.

Psychotherapy and Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help and it’s completely understandable that the shift in public perceptions of someone like Marilyn Manson “would make some who had a tattoo of him uncomfortable,” she says.

Techniques used when treating body dysmorphia around the concept of shaming can be applied here, explains Amos. “It’s a form of social embarrassment,” she says, “but these feelings can be managed with a kindness towards one’s self.

"In CBT approaches it’s about formulating an alternative response. If you can’t remove the tattoo, you can put in place, as a compensatory measure, a different way of thinking about it. With repetition of a kinder framework, thought patterns can shift.”

This might be to train yourself to think about the happy period of time in your life when you got the tattoo, and repeat this positive thought through CBT techniques. “Each patient should come up with their own ideas themselves for the process … it’s an almost mindfulness type exercise, and spend time contemplating the disliked object with a sense of compassion on a daily basis and build new associations and connections”.

A bad tat might even become a conversation starter, "with people learning to use theirs for a positive interaction with strangers," advises Amos, perhaps as a moment of humour, something to break the ice with.

“After all,” she says, paraphrasing Oprah Winfrey, “we do our best with the information we have at the time”.

*Petra Amos uses a pseudonym.

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