Tattoos as Transformational Pilgrimage: Women’s Tattoo Narratives in Houston, Texas

Guest contributor: Laura Newman

Skin communicates many messages to others — a person’s race, gender, age, and even socioeconomic status. A tattoo is a chance for individuals to mark themselves outside of conventional boundaries. As DeMello explains: “If the physical body serves as a site in which gender, ethnicity, and class are symbolically marked, tattoos and the process of inscription itself create the cultural body themselves, thereby creating and maintaining specific social boundaries. Tattoos articulate not only the body, but the psyche as well” (1993:10).

Tattoos also have meaning to the individual. For my M.A. thesis at the University of Houston, my research goal was to analyze and understand how tattoo narratives help the story teller explain to themselves and to others how their tattoo has symbolized a change in their lives. Getting a tattoo can be a significant event for women in itself.  Tattoos are often planned out with the artist to ensure that it is exactly what the wearer wants.

A tattoo narrative is rich with details and meaning. “As individuals reflect on the major events that have shaped their lives, they maintain and get others to acknowledge important features of their self-understanding. More than a social obligation, this sharing of personal experience serves the psychological purpose of bolstering one’s subjective sense of being properly motivated and well directed in life” (McCollum 2002:113). Being visually accessible to others the tattoo story is told over time and repeatedly. My goal was to record these stories and identify important changes in a woman’s life related to their tattoos.

Social science literature documents how women find power in controlling how their bodies look, be it through cosmetic surgery, a new haircut, or body modifications involving piercing or tattooing. Tattooing is a relatively new presence among females in the United States, and debate exists over whether it is art or mutilation of the body. According to Kosut (2000):

Our physical appearance – how we look to others – also shapes everyday interactions. Inferences can be made regarding an individual’s social status, ethnicity, class, gender and occupation, by reading various bodily ‘sign vehicles.’ In this framework, a tattoo, much like a person’s clothing, hairstyle, or body shape, functions as a communicative device. However, unlike clothing, a tattoo is permanent – it will be inscribed onto the body for life. It alters the body’s surface through iconography, not reconstruction or the addition/subtraction of fat, tissue, or saline. Thus, all bodies transmit messages, but the tattooed body is a distinctively communicative body because it employs a unique form of articulation. (82)

What is a “tattoo narrative?”

DeMello suggests that those who have felt in the past the need to justify their tattoos through carefully articulated and detailed stories were the first contributors to the creation of a new discourse of tattooing. These narratives reveal how people provide “meaning for their tattoos, meanings that are especially necessary within a middle-class context that traditionally has not viewed tattoos in a positive light.” (2000:152). This new attitude is a product of the “Tattoo Renaissance” when more middle class and working class individuals were getting tattooed, not previously associated with the practice.

While today, in the United States, tattoos are slightly more accepted and prevalent, women often still feel the need to tell their story when asked about their tattoo, especially when there is a connection with a life event to the tattoo. According to DeMello, “These narratives form the basis of the individual’s personal understanding of his or her tattoo, just as the narratives of alcoholics or adult victims of child abuse provide those individuals with a particular history and identity that is shared with others who have been through similar struggles” (2000:152).

DeMello further notes that tattoo narratives contain characteristic features, such as why the person decided to get tattooed, how they came up with the design, the meaning or symbolism of the design, the actual experience of getting the tattoo, and what the tattoo means to them now. Tattoo narratives rely more on self-reflection than memory. “Tattoo narratives are especially constructed to re-create for both the teller and the listener not only the ‘facts’ of the tattoo, but the complex justifications of it” (2000: 152).

Personal transformation

From the planning phase, to being in the chair, and then onto the healing phase, the process of getting a tattoo can be compared to other well documented and understood rituals or rites of passage. After a person purposefully goes into a tattoo parlor, especially the first time, they then leave transformed. The practices of tattooing tend to “involve subjects who experience pain, pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth, and redefine the relationship between the self and society through the skin” (Schildkrout 2004:320).  This process is similar to the notion of transformative pilgrimages.

According to Schmidt, the theory of transformative pilgrimage focuses on the dire situations in which a person seeks out an extreme method of coping and working through a traumatic event (2009:65). The motivations for transformative pilgrimages parallel many of the ones expressed in tattoo narratives. In speaking of pilgrimages, Schmidt begins with “generally, the journey prompted by loss and trauma is unconscious and ‘guided’ by the phases and stations of grief itself…For most contemporary pilgrims, however, their journeying is consciously chosen as an intentional movement on a sacred path” (p. 66). Pilgrimages occur whenever the journey and the quest for an ideal intersect.

For the one whose life cohesion has been shattered, the ideal being sought is not the restoration of what once was, but the potential creation of a renewed self and/or communal identity. Such a ‘new’ identity must be capable of honoring what was lived before while nevertheless being shaped into a selfhood now rearranged to be able to be more fully engaged in its present world (Schmidt, 2009: 67).

There is a similarity between Schmidt’s description and the process a tattooed person will often go through. The tattoo can represent a life change and a redefining of the status quo; those who choose to get tattooed, as a result, look for that transition and not a return to the former self. Once the tattoo has healed, many feel they are ready to “face the world” again or at least try. The concept of transformative pilgrimage contains many similarities I have witnessed in my own experience of being tattooed. While not all individuals who seek a tattoo are inspired to do so because of tragedy or trauma, women are more likely than men to use tattoos to mark a significant event in their life.

According to Schmidt (2009), most pilgrims are aware of the hardship and tribulations that accompany a pilgrimage, but few are deterred. The pilgrimage is not seen as a vacation or an escape, instead as a journey toward the transformative possibility that the journey itself contains. “There seems to be a direct correspondence between pilgrimage as a spatial and temporal event and the current unresolved, and inner, spiritual dimensions of the pilgrim’s life” (Schmidt, 2009: 67). When discussing transformational pilgrimage, Schmidt states that his research demonstrates that certain life occurrences require an intentional self-transformation process for which pilgrimage is uniquely suited; this is under the presumption that some aspect of the pilgrim’s life has come under serious challenge or even collapse. This pilgrimage is a journey towards the establishment of a new self, prepared for the future. Similarly, tattoo narratives often portray the same scenario. The process of getting a tattoo often results in the person moving forward from their life change or event.

As the final element of this transformational pilgrimage, it is vital that the pilgrim return home with a souvenir of the journey. This item is not a mere trinket, but a tangible reminder of the spiritual energy found along the journey (Schmidt, 2009:73). The permanent mark left by the journey through the tattooing process is the equivalent to this souvenir. It is a representation of the sacredness of their odyssey, from emptiness to a new self. The permanent marking of the skin after the tattoo journey is a reminder of that experience – it’s the souvenir.

Rush (2005) discusses the tattoo process as a transformational rite of passage in cultures that use tattooing or scarification as a rite of passage (unlike Western cultures). Rush explains that the pain and suffering in the ceremony is a necessity to the transformation:

As he holds back he learns to interpret his pain differently, the experience or awareness of the pain changes, and it is at that instant that he realizes something has changed in him. How does such a painful act transform? It transforms in a similar manner as life’s traumas, by rendering the individual momentarily helpless. And when you are helpless, you dance and create, like Shiva, and at the same time destroy and leave behind the old, which is responsible for bringing in the new (p. 185).

My research

I conducted my research on women’s tattoo narratives in 2011. The participants were the female tattooed sub-culture in Houston between the ages of 21 and 39 with no specific goal in regards to ethnicities. A large study population was not necessary for this qualitative study; my focus was on having at least ten research participants.

I found all participants in Houston, sometimes in a café, other times through the tattoo parlor I frequented. I would ask respondents to tell me their story about their most significant or favorite tattoo (their tattoo narrative) as they would tell their family, friends, or strangers. The telling of their entire story was elicited from the participants – beginning (before the tattoo), middle (the tattoo experience itself), and after (since the tattoo) by using general conversation cues. I decided not to ask specific questions about the tattoo because I was interested in documenting their tattoo narrative, not the answers they provide me. This approach has proven to be successful in previous research. Generally, I simply needed to ask them to tell me their story, encouraging them to open up and not just start with the tattoo itself. According to Sanders, it is often beneficial for researchers to approach the “unique phenomenon of human behavior by reaffirming their commitment to the flexible, creative, and interpretive search for meaning that has long been then cornerstone of disciplined ethnographic research” (2008: 189).

Through informal and semi-structured interviewing techniques and by documenting the tattoos in photographs, I was able to provide an understanding of how tattoos and their narratives are used by women in response to a life change and how tattoos relate to a woman’s sense of control.

The stories

My work began by inviting the women asking women to remember, make meaning of events, and evaluate through their narratives the aspects of their experiences. Based upon their reflections, I wanted to understand if they felt their stories meaningfully contribute to their identities, lives, and relationships.

Leah: captures her images from nature

Leah is 21 years old, of Hispanic heritage, and works as a dog kennel technician and a nanny. Leah’s story is filled with tragedy but has a positive transformation. Unfortunately, Leah decided on her tattoo journey after enduring a very traumatic event, but did find strength in the outcome of her tattoo experience.

I ask her to tell me about her most significant tattoo, and her arm piece is a collection, but she sees it all as one and tells me the stories about all parts of the sleeve.

“At first on my wrist I have “she flies by her own wings”, my best friend Sophie had gone to boarding school with me from about 13 – 16 years old. It was a therapeutic boarding school – we met there and she was very dependent for support and needing a friend.” She mentions that Sophie also got a tattoo that symbolized their friendship. The wings part was because Sophie loved birds. Leah told me she decided to make it into a sleeve, which she was originally against because her mom instilled in her that she could never look professional with a sleeve tattoo. She goes on to explain how she decided what the sleeve would have.

“So, I brainstormed with a friend, my mom’s favorite animal is a wolf … when I was 11 something happened to me and so I looked up a bunch of different animal meanings, wanted something for freedom and letting things go. Not letting others to control me.” “Then I added – well, I decided to go with a Native American theme. I love dream catchers. I have crazy vivid dreams, which I love, but they scare me sometimes, too”. “It tells me that there is time for reality and there is time for dreams, but I would sometimes rather be in a dream”.

Above is a girl, looking straight out. “I decided to make it more modest and beautiful.” The horses are because “I did a horse therapy program, where I worked with the animals as a form of therapy to help me work through my own things”. “I also volunteered with Leap of Faith which deals with autistic children…And I just love horses.”

“I have the tree as a symbol of how people describe me. Through my growth, what I’ve been through in my life and represented by the limbs growing out and the roots”.

I asked her carefully what had happened to her. I explained she did not have to tell me if she did not want to, but that it seems to be a significant event that changed her life. She tells me a bit of the story, but asked that I only document that she was kidnapped at the age of 11 by a sexual predator and got pregnant. She explained that only about three people in her life know the story. She was admitted to the therapy programs to help her cope and deal with her trauma.

When I asked if the tattoo has helped in anyway, she replied “the tattoos remind me that I am my own person, and I don’t have to depend on others to bring me my happiness or comfort … that I can find comfort in myself, but, also, I did need others too”.

She told me that people often ask if she is Indian (Native American), she says no, but loves the spirituality and wanted to bring that to her life, and having those images on her arm allow her to gaze upon it often. That focus has helped her find her spirituality and focused her drive to go to school for therapy with animals.

She is an example of what good can come of a bad situation. She has chosen to embrace her love of animals and natural ability to help others.

Kayli: devout Christian

Kayli is 26 years old and works as a family counselor. Her story is one of how her tattoos helped her learn more about her life changes and how the tattoos give her strength to stand up to her convictions. Her tattoos have also helped repair her relationship with her father, who was very disapproving of her first tattoo she got during her “rebellious age”.

Kayli has four small tattoos and wanted to tell me about all of them. The first tattoo Kayli got she referred to as “stereotypical deviant behavior – wanted to see what I could get away with” She was 17 years old and had a fake ID to drink in the Bahamas. “I went to a place that didn’t care, flipped thru the books and got it “right on my ass”. A cross with a rose wrapped around it and I hid it from parents.” “Dad very much held onto the notion that I was a deviant, rebellious child, and what the hell is wrong with you…They even asked me what they did wrong as parents to make me want to do this, so I promised not to get anymore.”

Kayli got her second tattoo a couple years later as a sophomore in college. “A lot of things happened, not sure if it was because of the tattoo or if I just realized I didn’t need to be this rebellious kid and try to get away with whatever I could – I realized I was doing the most damage to myself by not liking who I was or being comfortable in my own skin”. She explains that she began a spiritual walk with God at this point. She admits she found tattoos addicting – loved the look and the artwork. She got the second one on her foot – script with the word alleluia “means praise the Lord”. The words are with a hibiscus flower, which she tells me is her favorite flower. “Saw it as something for me to remind myself of the joy and gratitude I have for my life…the love that I know God has for me”. She explains that she spent a lot of time working on repairing the damage to the trust with her parents. She wanted her dad to really understand that “I am the same Kayli – that you can trust me – just because I have tattoos doesn’t mean …” “When I came home from college he saw the tattoo – but this time he thought about it. He had seen me grow and our relationship was so much better. Even though it was hard for him to do, he didn’t immediately judge as he had done with the first tattoo.”

Kayli’s third tattoo is a heart on her wrist. “When I got my first one at 17, my best friend was 18 and she got this (points to her wrist).  So, there was really, honestly, not a lot of symbolism aside from her being my best friend and I really liked the design”.  The design is a little faded due to wear and tear endured right after the tattoo. “…at first I was really irritated about it, it’s all messed up … Did I do something wrong? But honestly, over time I have really come to love it just the way it is. It’s not perfect, and I know that something for me to not seek perfection, instead accepting who I am and being totally okay with that.” It is interesting and significant that she has decided not to get it touched up.

She goes onto explain a little about her experience of having the tattoos up to this time, she tells me that she was working at a camp and was unhappy with having to cover her tattoos. She disagreed because it’s who she is. She felt that she should be “100% herself and encouraging these kids to face their own fears and was asked to hide part of who she is.” “The tattoos have the ability to show that good people can be tattooed as well, and that they should be proud of who they are. I realize that everyone has their own judgments and pre-conceived notions and I understand that comes with the territory. I am open to talking to people about them.”

Kayli’s fourth tattoo was acquired a few years ago when she started Graduate school, and is currently her favorite, or most significant because of the conversations that come about from it. It is Hebrew for “chosen”. “For me, the meaning is that I am chosen by God to love him and love the people around me… it’s so much of who I am and I find comfort in that.” She explains that she took a lot of time deciding on the design and placement (it is on the inside of her forearm). She wanted Hebrew but wanted the meaning to be exactly right. She decided on placement that she can see, and says that it sparks the most discussions, “People see it and want to talk about it, it challenges me to be bold about who I am and say exactly what I want to them. Sometimes it’s hard for me to say, and so I like the challenge.” She has had the tattoo for 2 years and finds it easier and easier to talk about as people ask about it.

She explained that she is happy to see that her dad is still going through the process of understanding her drive and accepting her as a whole, not judging her because of the tattoos. “Cool to see him get outside of his box a bit”.

When talking to Kayli, I noted a few observations that I think are potentially significant to my overall theme of this paper. The first is that she obviously enjoys the challenge of talking about her beliefs to strangers when they ask about the Hebrew tattoo. This shows growth in an area that may not have happened without the help of the tattoo, and she actually recognizes the power that the tattoo has in that development.

Second, the father seems to be a huge part of her wanting others to understand that she is no different because of her tattoos. I think many women struggle with at least one of those relationships. She seems more at peace with her decisions now because her father is not as disapproving as he was.

Third, after the recorder was shut off, she had a few kids waiting on her for a ride home. She spends time with some of the kids from an at-risk center. They started talking to us about tattoos and meaning, as well as discrimination and pride. It was a fantastic display of conversations that these kids could really never have with their parents, but had an opportunity to get some real answers from us.

Christy: tattoo regrets

I interviewed Christy, a friend of my tattoo artist, right after I interviewed Sabrina. She is a 27 year old bartender that works next door to the tattoo parlor. Her story is short, and her tattoo is a result of dealing with an unexpected death in her life. She is my only participant that regrets her tattoo and wishes to cover it.

She tells me a short story about her most significant tattoo, a flower on her back. It was originally a drawing done by her boyfriend when she was 18. She tells me that he committed suicide and at the time she believed she was going to follow his lead. It also has their zodiac signs (Cancer and Aquarius) written in Arabic.

When I probed a little further and tried to get her to tell me a little more, she tells me that the tattoo helped her get through the issues she was facing, but now looking back, she regrets the tattoo. She regrets it for two reasons: the first is that it’s “close to being a tramp stamp.” Her second reason is more personal, at the time he committed suicide, she thought it was her fault that he died, and since then she has “come to terms with the notion that people are going to do what they are going to do.”

She is planning on having it covered or removed because now “it’s just a reminder of a horrible time in my life”. Even though she regrets it, if someone asks about it, she tells them it’s a dedication tattoo. She does not go into detail about the circumstances around the tattoo.

She is currently working on a sleeve that she is very fond of – including a 2 headed humming bird – for her sister and mother. She will be adding more birds that represent family members, such as a roadrunner for her grandfather and a woodpecker for her brother. She seems to be happy in planning the new tattoo, I think it because it will be associated with those she loves and that make her happy.

Sarah: re-discovered her own beauty

Sarah is a 25 year old sales supervisor and only has one tattoo (so far!). Sarah is my only participant that has only one tattoo, but she does plan on getting more in the future. Her story is about the transformation she went through before her tattoo, and the tattoo was a symbol of beauty and pride in herself.

Sarah begins her story by telling me that in 2006 she had weight loss surgery and lost close to 200lbs. “Over the next 2 years my life completely changed. My self-confidence skyrocketed, and my body was something I could be proud of, and I broke up with my boyfriend of 5 years.”

She goes on to explain why she decided to get her tattoo on her shoulder, “After losing 200lbs, the only thing left that felt pretty after the body changes was my back. So, I knew that is where I wanted to get it, but didn’t know what. I wanted something to go along with nature, because I’m kind of a hippy.” So, she did research online and found a picture drawing of a hummingbird with pretty swirls, so she “stole” it.

Sarah took the design to an artist, and the artist suggested it to be bigger to show the details. After thinking about it, she decided to do it. She explains that she made her boyfriend go with her. The artist put the stencil on her back and she liked it, and decided to do it in a brown so it looked natural, almost like henna. She was 23 and says “it was the first major thing I had done and it was so exciting.” She was nervous about the pain more than the permanence of it. She actually passed out during the process – not because of the pain, but because she was concentrating on the feeling of it and forgot to breathe. She tells me this while laughing a bit about it.

She explains she has no regrets and wants another one soon. She “loves the feeling of confidence it gives her and reminds her of her change.”

Tattoos as transformational pilgrimage

DeMello’s assertion that tattoos have a transformative power appears to be confirmed in my research. She found evidence in her research that the “transformative power of the tattoo is especially useful for individuals experiencing crisis in their lives. Women, especially, speak of situations involving domestic abuse, the breakup of primary relationships, or serious illness. These women see in their tattoos the power to handle such crisis” (2009:166-167). In the stories such as Leah’s and Sabrina’s, they are very young women that dealt with severe trauma in their lives. It is apparent that the acquisition of their tattoos has helped them deal with and understand their trauma. When comparing their particular stories to the transformational pilgrimage, I can see direct correlations between the process of this type of pilgrimage and the tattoo experience these women went through. A great deal of planning and deciding to get the tattoos went into their experience, much as the first step in the pilgrimage. The act of getting the tattoos was an experience in pain and taking control of their bodies. The tattoos that were left permanently marked on the skin were their token of the experience they went through.

According to Rush, “Pain alters awareness; it is a focal point that turns us inward, into the psyche. A physical beating can profoundly change one’s attitude, one’s beliefs about ‘self’ and the world, and any marks left can be a continual reminder…pain and/or punishment with a specific ritual process, and especially with the consent of the initiate, directs awareness so as to impart a specific symbol or cluster of symbols, with an emphasis on or amplification of his or her relationship to the group and the spiritual world” (2005:178). Rush goes onto explain, much like a spiritual and transformational pilgrimage, that the process of getting a tattoo can be a transformation of the spirit:

The metaphor of spiritual tattoo is the removal of the old self, physically and emotionally, and allowing the beauty inherent in the aches and pains of life to come through in your sacred writings, your tattoos or scars (p.196).

In comparing the tattoo narratives I collected with the life narrative theories, I was able to document that tattoo stories referenced a change in status quo of the participant. In reading each of the narratives there was a distinct event that occurred in the women’s lives that prompted the desire to commemorate it with their tattoo or tattoos. This correlates with what Franzosi (1998) stated to what actually makes a narrative. He states that a story must include a transformation, a move in one direction or another, but a move nonetheless. Each of my participants spoke of an event that changed their life, or a series of events. In a few of the stories, the event was tragic and required a dramatic need to overcome and process the experience – stories such as Leah’s and Sabrina’s. Others were changes that took place over time, and as the woman learned more about herself and her changing values or position in life – stories such as Sarah’s and Kayli’s. A death of someone close prompted a change in how Christy (and some of the women whose stories were not highlighted in this article) viewed their lives going forward, and chose to remember those people in their lives by getting a tattoo.

According to Van Gennep (1960), transitions from one’s social situation to the next are looked on as “implicit in the very fact of existence, so that a man’s life comes to be made up of a succession of stages with similar ends and beginnings: birth, social puberty, marriage, fatherhood, advancement to a higher class, occupational specialization, and death” (3). He sums it well by explaining that “the universe itself is governed by a periodicity which has repercussions on human life, with stages and transitions, movements forward, and periods of relative inactivity” (p. 3). The tattoo narratives I collected show these movements forward and changes in status-quo. The stories expressed a need to not be classified into a particular category – such as Leah being classified as a victim. She has worked through therapy and getting tattoos to feel more powerful, she takes an active role in her progress forward.

Tattoos and transformation: in research, healing, and people’s lives

Recording and discussing these tattoo narratives mirrors the idea of “the interpretive turn” that is prevalent in life narratives. It means that we value the meaning people make of their own experiences over the meanings that are given by “experts”. According to Combs & Freeman regarding life narratives “we invite them to remember, make meaning of, and evaluate those aspects of their experience and decide if these new stories might more meaningfully contribute to their identities, lives, and relationships than do the problematic stories. People find wisdom and direction in their own experience rather than in expert idea” (2004:139).

Tattoo narratives can, like life narratives, have therapeutic effects. Telling a tattoo narrative appears to be easier for my participants than a discussion of the actual event (specifically in the trauma related stories), but the telling of the story allows the woman to discuss the event and how their lives have changed indirectly but effectively. According to McAdams (2004), the narrative therapy movement and the increase in narrative research in the social sciences have developed on parallel tracks over the last twenty years. In many areas however, developments in one tract may have implications in the other. In particular, McAdams’ own work on narrative identity, along with related research areas in the narrative study of lives, would appear to hold important implications for conceiving and practicing narrative therapy. A person’s narrative identity says as much about their world as it does about the person and their culture (pp. 167-169).

This study offers insights into the transformational experience of the tattoo journey. This area is understudied, and therefore it contributes to a new avenue of research, especially viewing the tattoo journey as a transformational pilgrimage. This direction could be helpful to health care practitioners in understanding how tattoos can assist in people dealing with significant trauma and changes in their lives. Last, the tattooed community, especially the women, would benefit from a more positive portrayal of the art they have decided to permanently etch into their skin.


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Laura Newman has a B.S. from the University of Houston in 2006 where she majored in anthropology and minored in sociology and biology. She began as a biology major, but later discovered her love for anthropology. As an undergraduate, she became a part of the tattooed community, and was fascinated by the women she met. She then went on to earn an M.A in anthropology in 2012. Her M.A. was based on a study of Houston women’s tattoo narratives. This blog post is derived from her thesis. Laura Newman is an analyst in the eXcellence Program in Upstream Learning in Houston. During her free time, she does community outreach and volunteering work.



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