We think body art cannot be framed as an addiction in the clinical sense, even in its more extreme forms and medical experts seem to agree. Find out more about this potential link and learn why some people want more tattoos and piercings than others.
Identity, pleasure, and process addiction
In concert with an increasing social acceptance of body modifications, more and more people adopt them to make a cultural stance, mark battles won against addiction, redefine their appearance, and explore new ways of self-expression.
All these have to do with identity. And creating our identity is a process that sparks pleasure chemicals in our brains. Therefore, any activity or process that alludes to our forging identity can become a psychological refugee and become an addiction because of the generated pleasure.
A casino player can be absorbed by the pleasure of nailing the right wager on their first try, and there’s a potential for addiction without proper precautions. Similarly, someone passionate about body art may find it challenging to concern themselves with something else after a dopamine-filled first visit to the salon.
Some people admit they have no deeper reason for getting a tattoo other than the adrenaline rush and the feeling of rebelliousness they get. A whole suite of coping mechanisms may ensue until the individual cannot function normally without first taking his ‘dose’.
Is process addiction the same as an addiction to drugs?
When the fine line that separates a love for body art from obsession is crossed, the person’s behavioral patterns and dopamine pathways change. Thus, their mental state becomes similar to a drug addict. They live to find ideas and reasons to immortalize another story onto their skin.
Drug seekers act in a similar fashion when they strategically place themselves in just the proper circumstances to get the desired substance. To that effect, motivation to seek body modifications can come just as quickly.
Although constantly thinking about tattoos and planning your next body modification doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an addict, it might reveal an underlying psychological impairment.
The problem is not getting an image inscribed onto your skin but the felt pressure to adjust one’s body image frequently. When all interest in life is wrapped up in fantasies of the ‘inking’ process, an imbalance needs to be corrected. But doctors wouldn’t compare it to substance abuse.
Can you really get addicted to tattoos?
While the similarities with addiction are undoubted in terms of pleasure-seeking, psychiatrists would deny that tattoos and piercings are clinically addictive. Nobody has been officially diagnosed with tattoo cravings. Yet, the different sub-processes that make up a visit to the salon can have addictive properties.
We’ve already explored one of these situations. After the initial experience, you may repeatedly seek the adrenaline associated with the first tattoo.
But we can also become hungry for the endorphins released due to the pain implicit in making a tattoo. The minor buzz felt as the brain rewards our efforts with feel-good chemicals is comparable to an opioid high.
Moreover, some people can even get addicted to the pain of getting inked and subsequently choose to have more extensive and detailed tattoos to feel more. Contrary to the majority, this population segment has a different appraisal of pleasure and pain and may not be bothered by the colourful needle bites. As such, controlled levels of pain can turn into an addictive practice.
In extreme cases, body art can combine with masochistic tendencies. Suppose the person already has a reversed experience of pain. In that case, they may be more willing to tolerate what others would deem a discomfort.
Extreme body modifications
In general, people described by the term ‘tattoo addict’ have unusually large areas of their bodies covered by ink. For them, ink has become a way of life. It’s the case with many entertainers and circus performers who go to such lengths as to paint their faces in permanent patterns.
A paramount example is the current Guinness World Record holder for the world’s most tattooed man. Lucky Diamond Rich has held the record for more than 10 years and needed over 1000 hours in the salon to look the way he does now. He’s not short of piercings either.
Besides all the tattoos, Lucky’s body modifications include a variety of piercings and stretched earlobes, and he’s also had his teeth replaced with silver fangs.
Consider future employment plans if you fancy covering your face with a tattoo. While there’s an evident trend of de-stigmatization about body art, some employers may be more traditionalistic and still prefer a plain-looking face.
Excessive body modifications – between obsession and addiction
Based on a review of current specialized literature, we can confidently assert that body modification cannot cause addiction in itself. However, the discussion remains open if we regard the link between body art and addiction from the perspective of process addiction.
An activity that influences our identity and body perception can generate significant pleasure. In turn, the perceived satisfaction makes us want to repeat that activity, in this case, adjusting our appearance with tattoos, piercings, gauges, and so on. However, such a penchant for painting or piercing one’s skin can be better framed as obsession instead of addiction.
As long as body art does not interfere with our day-to-day activities, it’s difficult to draw a line and mark what it means to have ‘too many’ tattoos. Compared to other, more serious coping mechanisms involving substances or gambling, body art is a benign addiction that’s free of the usual negative consequences.