Psychologist logo
Emotion, Personality and self

Tattoo regret

Is this an area in need of more research?

20 April 2015

Waiting with the herd of parents at the school gates, I overheard a discussion about painful and expensive tattoo removal. The conversation spread like a contagious therapy session, more wounded men and women came forward; and scars were being shared. It wasn't the first time I'd heard people in their thirties and forties discussing 'tattoo regret', an area that requires more investigation.

Tattoo removal may be a booming industry, yet so still is tattooing, particularly with under 25s. More young people than ever are having tattoos. Tattoo regret looks certain to rise in correlation.

Getting a tattoo that you later regret may just be part of being young. The prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for planning ahead and risk taking (Blakemore & Mills, 2014), is not fully developed until around 25-years-old, so behaviour later viewed as foolish or risky can be considered typical. And, of course, the influence of celebrity is significant on this age group; a tattoo offers the opportunity to mimic, to belong; therefore, become cool too. Young people are merely pursuing Carl Rogers' 'ideal self.'

I asked some of the parents for their reasons for removal. Some were thinking about the example to their children; others no longer liked tattoos and were fed up with covering up; some worried about perceptions of employers and colleagues; others were disappointed with the art they'd chosen, which had often dated. Fashion is impermanent; the idea of a fashionable tattoo is a paradox. Whether it be a dolphin on the shoulder, barbed wire around the triceps, or a full tattooed sleeve, either fashion or your own psyche moves on.

There seems to be more than a hint of self-dissatisfaction inspiring many tattoos. Statistically, people with tattoos are more likely to have self-harmed (Stirn & Hinz, 2008), often saying they had previously had a bad relationship with their body or that a tattoo was a way of getting over a negative event.

For those seeking attention tattoos certainly induce reaction, be it praise or disdain; drawing the eye to youthful skin, often erotic areas of the body. But is attracting attention, the same as being attractive? People with new tattoos report feeling more attractive, but what happens when the eyes are drawn to skin that is no longer youthful or to a body no longer in shape?

The blandest of walls and ugliest of buildings are more likely to be a magnet for graffiti than the chiselled ornate stone of an ancient church or temple. It is rare too for Mother Nature's designs to be attacked. Nobody thinks trees require added art. It is also rare to attack pets with a spray can; we seem happy with how evolution intended them. Yet our own bodies do not appear safe from artistic modification. Maybe when we fail to see any beauty or worth we feel the design could be improved.

For many people a tattoo is a youthful demonstration of self-expression that they stand by throughout their lives. For others, tattoo regret can be the symptom of psychological progress, as life experience develops identity and self-worth. Few events affect this more than becoming a parent. Perhaps this is the true age of tattoo regret.
Peter Sear
Theydon Bois, Essex

Blakemore, SJ. & Mills, K. (2014). Is adolescence a sensitive period for sociocultural processing? Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 187–207
Stirn, A. & Hinz, A. (2008). Tattoos, body piercings, and self-injury: Is there a connection? Psychotherapy Research, 18(3), 326–333.