Science Explains If Tattoo Addiction Is Real

December 1st 2015

Micah Herman has almost 30 tattoos, but has never gotten his head inked before. On a Thursday night in Melrose Tattoo shop in West Hollywood, California, he waits patiently as his artist, Dean Berton, gets ready to ink him again.

Why his head?

“I’ve always liked tattoos on the hands, the sides of the neck and face,” Herman explains. “I like the idea that I can grow [out my hair] and you can’t see it.”

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Dean tattooing HermanDiana Crandall/ATTN:

Herman, 26, calmly lays down on his side and waits, his purple mohawk undisturbed by the table he’s on. He’s one of 45 million people in the U.S. who have at least one tattoo, according to data compiled by the Statistic Brain Research Institute. He’s also a member of the 32 percent of Americans who report they are addicted to getting inked.

“After the first tattoo I got on my arm, I immediately wanted a sleeve,” Micah explains. “I had no desire for one beforehand, yet after getting that first one I just could’t stop envisioning my arm covered.”

Herman's first tattooDiana Crandall/ATTN:

Are tattoos really addictive?

Some people theorize that the pain that comes along with getting tattooed might be addictive, a type of euphoric rush. There have even been television shows based entirely on the psychological effects of tattoos, like Spike TV's "Ink Shrinks."  Others say that tattooed people like the attention they get from new ink.

"Tattoos idealize youth and fertility by drawing eyes to youthful skin and often erotic parts of the body," Kirby Farrell, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today. "We're social animals. It's how we're built... We rely on social behavior — attention — to substantiate us and make us feel real."

"Tattoos promise to make you attractive, as if you have a personal force akin to gravity. Notice me," Dr. Farrell continues. "The more attraction you command, the more attention you get, and the more life you have — as we see in the public's devotion to celebrities and leaders."

But it’s a bit misleading to talk about tattooing in terms of addiction and dependence, according to Viren Swami, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Anglia Ruskin University, who talked to ATTN about his extensive studies of tattooed people.

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“I think that the short answer is that we don’t know. We don’t know whether it’s a real thing or not. And most people who study it suggest that it’s too early in terms of the research where tattoos specifically are a form of addiction,” Dr. Swami said over the phone. Dr. Swami also said that more research needs to be done because there isn't enough evidence to show that addiction is driving people to get tattoos. 

 “If you give them a list of possible motivations for getting tattoos, addiction is one of the most poorly rated" Dr. Swami said. 

Tattoos are no new fad. Humans have been marking their skin for thousands of years with the reasoning behind tattoos varying from tribal allegiance and life history to decorative, whimsical or works of art.

The Maori, an indigenous people of New Zealand, carved designs into the flesh with bone chisels. Once they cut the designs into the skin, they dipped the chisel in ink and put it into the open gashes, Buzzfeed notes. The process of tattooing was considered sacred to the Maori, with the head being the most sacred part of the body, according to Zealand Tattoo. For this reason, facial tattoos were very popular amongst members of the people.

Motivation behind tattoos

“I think people who are heavily tattooed have made a conscious decision [to do so],” Swami said. “All the evidence that we have with people who are heavily tattooed, people are making conscious decisions to get more tattoos.”

“The range of motivations people have…there isn’t just one example where you can say everyone is getting a tattoo [for the same reason].”

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Herman certainly has made a conscious decision to get his latest tattoo, and he doesn’t seem to mind the pain too much. He stares into the distance peacefully as the sound of the needle buzzes through the shop. Berton begins the intricate process of tattooing a tiger on the right side of Herman’s head.

Herman on Dean's tableDiana Crandall/ATTN:

Even though he admits they can hurt, Herman says that for him, tattoos are sort of like getting a massage. He describes the feeling for him:

“You get excited about it, you treat yourself and after a month goes by, you kind of get excited because that feeling you had right after [getting tattooed] wears off. Getting tattooed is kind of a euphoric experience."

Berton, who has honed his craft as an artist for 25 years, says that some people keep coming back to get tattoos because they find a type of tranquility in it, among other positive things.

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Dean tattooing HermanDiana Crandall/ATTN:

“If the tattoo artist has a 'good hand', the client can feel that. Even though that hurts, they can feel the love and care and the skill in the hand, and it can be sort of a zen experience," Berton says.

Why the frequency?

Ultimately, there’s no single, definitive reason why people get lots of tattoos and others don’t, the BBC reports. If you’re seeing more tattoos, it might actually be because tattoos are more socially acceptable in our society than they used to be.

“Now, they're more accepted than ever. You could even call them “trendy,” writes Reef Karim, D.O., in the Huffington Post. Karim is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA and a media personality.

“Our current society craves individuality and self expression. And now many people wear their artistic expression," Karim writes.

Swami echoes this sentiment.

“It’s so mainstream, most people are getting them."

But Herman says he keeps returning for more than just a tattoo.

“I feel like the reason I keep coming back to Berton is because not only do I like his company, but you begin to build a relationship with that person, and I kind of know what he likes and he knows what I like,” Herman explains.

“It’s not all about the tattoo. The fact that I let him rip the shit out of my skin for two hours is because I trust him as an artist. And you develop that when you continuously go to someone over and over."

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After more than two hours of tattooing, Herman is finished with his first session.

“Is that color? Or is that me bleeding?” Herman grins at Berton from the mirror as he examines his newest tattoo.

He plans to come back for more to completely finish the tattoo, but one thing is for sure: it certainly won’t be his last.

Check out more of Dean Berton's tattoo designs on Instagram.

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