Tat’s entertainment: A brief look at ‘My Tattoo Addiction’

Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have taken a passing interest in body tattoos both in relation to those who are sexually aroused by them (see my previous blog on stigmatophilia) and the representation of tattoos in films. I also have to admit that I’ve been watching the UK Channel 4 television series My Tattoo Addiction (mainly because it had the word ‘addiction’ in the title). Although I aim to look at the issue of ‘tattoo addiction’ in more academic terms in a future blog (so apologies for those of you wanting something empirically-based), but I just wanted to quickly examine whether any of the people featured across the television series could be classed in any way as ‘addicted’ to having tattoos.

Most of the time, the programme simply followed various British people where a story involving a tattoo made good (in this case ‘car crash’) television but had nothing to do with ‘addiction’. For instance, one story involved a trans-gendered individual who had his wife’s name tattooed on his arm but then changed gender so she had it changed into another different tattoo representing a symbolic transformation from man to woman. Another moving case story was of a woman who had a double mastectomy following breast cancer and then had nipples tattooed onto her reconstructed breasts following cosmetic surgery. A regular segment followed the events in one of the many tattoo parlours in Magaluf (in the Spanish island of Majorca) where almost all the people filmed were on ‘18-30’ type holidays. All of these appeared to be completely inebriated and having tattoos they would ultimately regret. Most of the cases featured young men and women having the names of people they had met that night and/or bizarre designs (such as the ‘burger nipple’) tattooed on their buttocks (at least that’s the take home message I took from it).

A number of the cases followed described themselves as having an “obsessive personality” and at least two of the cases were arguably obsessed with fictional literary characters that resulted in lots of tattoos (but I’ll come back to them in a minute). One of the men filmed for the documentary was 34-year old Mark from Buckinghamshire, and described by the programme as a “full blown tattoo addict”. He started off having a sole tattoo done when he was 22 years of age “then two, then three…and now it’s crept up on to [his] head”. Mark’s tattoos included one of the glamour model Jordan (i.e., Katie Price) with the words ‘Rape Me’ written across her chest, another of Audrey Hepburn with a sadomasochistic ball gag in her mouth, and another of a prudish Victorian lady reading a pornographic book about anal sex. When asked the reason for getting such extreme tattoos, Mark simply said he liked “the individuality, the outlet, and the shock factor” of his tattoos. Shocking, arguably. Addicted to tattoos? Not by my criteria.

Arguably one of the most sensational segments of the series was the controversial body art styled by tattooist Woody (who had gained much “notoriety for his challenging artwork”) including a tattoo of Adolf Hitler holding a large piece of paper with the words ‘Gas Bill’ on it. Woody claimed he liked his tattoos to “make statements”. The whole of his chest and stomach was taken up with a single tattoo that simply said “Pure F**king Hate” and his back was taken up with a single tattoo that reads “100% C**T” (without the asterisks – I just thought I’d add those for my readers with a sensitive disposition).

Of all the people featured in the series, two most caught my interest (psychologically), Jay – a 29-year old bodybuilder from Kent, and Kathy – a 52-year old woman from Reading. Jay was first described as having a “secret in his attic”. Since he was a boy, he has been an avid collector of super-hero action figures. His whole attic was full of unopened super-hero action figures (thousands of them it looked to me). His collection obsession was argued by Jay to be no different to someone who collects stamps – “just on a bigger scale”. The programme claimed that his “obsession [was] growing and manifesting itself in a new way” because he was getting his back tattooed with eleven large female super-heroes (the programme showed him having his sixth one done in a marathon 10-hour session). The programme narrator then went on to say that although Jay had only just started getting tattooed, he was already giving as much dedication to his tattoos as he was to his collecting.

Jay claimed that whenever he did anything in life he always ‘gave it his all’ and that his reasons for getting super-hero tattoos ran deeper than most.  He has dedicated his whole life “to the pursuit of physical excellence” and in his early twenties competed in the World’s Strongest Man competition. Unfortunately, he had to give it up after a serious heart failure but now devoted to bodybuilding despite being on heart medication for the rest of his life. It appeared to me that Jay was constantly replacing one highly salient activity with another (much like ‘reciprocity’ found in addicts that give up one addiction only to replace it with another).

He was told by a friend to fill his life with “something positive otherwise you’ll self-destruct”. It was during this period that Jay’s interest in super-heroes took on greater significance. It helped him come to terms that he would never reach his dream of becoming the world’s strongest man. I also noticed that around his house there were many items of super-hero memorabilia and accessories along with loads of super-hero DVDs.  Jay questioned himself as to whether he has an obsessive or compulsive behaviour. His response was something that I would wholeheartedly agree with given my views on the differences between healthy and addictive behaviour: “As long as the obsession doesn’t ruin my life, why is it such a bad thing? With what I’ve done it’s given me the life I’ve got…it’s the will to do what I do, the best I can”.

Kathy began her story by recounting that in 2010 she had “stumbled across the book that would change her life forever [about a] young and unassuming girl that doesn’t fit in, and comes to the attention of [a] family…it’s just a love story”. The narrator claimed the book “spoke to Kathy in a way she had never experienced before”. The book in question was Twilight (the young adult vampire-romance novel by Stephanie Meyer). She went and got The Twilight Saga DVDs and became “totally hooked”. The books and DVDs weren’t enough and she started getting Twilight characters tattooed on her body to the point where her whole back is now covered in them, along with her arms, legs, and upper chest. Kathy’s husband Colin was “very tolerant” of Kathy’s tattoos and his only stipulation was that he didn’t want her to have any tattoos on her face. The interviewer asked Kathy if she had an “obsession with Twilight” to which she simply replied that she did. While being filmed at a local tattoo convention, Kathy says that:

Every two weeks after pay day she got another tattoo. At the time of the programme she had undergone 91 hours of tattooing and was just about to have another tattoo put on some remaining space on one of her legs. Most of her tattoos were of (or related to) the character Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson). Kathy’s husband Colin was “very tolerant” of Kathy’s tattoos and his only stipulation was that he didn’t want her to have any tattoos on her face. The interviewer asked Kathy if she had an “obsession with Twilight” to which she simply replied that she did. While being filmed at a local tattoo convention, Kathy says that:

“Tattooing is addictive. This is my form of getting my fix. It’s not a bad thing. Obviously there’s a certain amount of pain [but] it’s what I get a buzz off now”.

Although a late starter in the tattoo world, Kathy said she couldn’t now imagine a life without tattoos and that without them her life would be “very boring” and that she wouldn’t be the person she now is. However, she admitted the tattoos had caused family conflicts. She hadn’t spoken with her brother in five years because he was too embarrassed by her tattoos, and her father refuses to be seen with her in public. Her sisters were more supportive and noticed that the tattoos had brought Kathy “out of her shell”. The tattoos had apparently turned Kathy from a “wallflower” into someone quite extrovert.

I was interested in how she came to tattoing so late in her life. Kathy revealed that became very depressed after the death of her 63-year old mother in 1999 and it was then that her weight started to balloon through overeating, and she developed a very low self-esteem. She refused to have photographs taken and was “ashamed” of what she looked like. After becoming “hooked” on the first Twilight book, she said it gave her life focus. She had now read it so many times she’s had to buy new copies as well read copies had become dog-eared.

She then bought the music soundtracks and then started exercising to the music. She would even exercise in front of the DVDs for two or three hours at a go. It was then she started losing weight and began getting tattoos. She said that the tattoos gave her focus and was a permanent reminder of how she had got her life “back on track” and kept her “feeling young”. The constant new tattoos were “costing [her] a small fortune – just over eight and a half thousand pounds so far”. She then went on to say that in terms of what she has planned in the future, the total cost of the tattooing will be between £17,000 and £25,000. She says it’s keeping her “permanently broke” but despite the cost she’s “not stopping”.

Based on the information in the documentary, both Jay and Kathy appeared to display elements of addictive and obsessive behaviour. However, I would argue that the addictive elements are more to do with something external to the tattoos (i.e., super-heroes and bodybuilding for Jay, and the Twilight story for Kathy) rather than the tattoos themselves (even though Kathy said that the act of getting tattoos was a buzz and addictive). There appeared to be some conflicts in both of their lives (health, financial, and/or family conflicts) although none that suggested that either were truly addicted to anything (tattoos or otherwise). For both of them, the behaviour they engaged appeared to make them feel better about themselves rather than being something negatively detrimental. As I have said time and time again, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from them.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Duggal, H.S. & Fisher, B. (2002). Repetitive tattooing in borderline personality and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 190–192.

Irwin, K. (2003). Saints and sinners: elite tattoo collectors and tattooists as positive and negative deviants. Sociological Spectrum, 23, 27-57.

Raspa, R.F. & Cusack, J. (1990) Psychiatric implications of tattoos. American Family Physician, 41,1481-1486.

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J. & Kappeler, P.M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image, 4, 87-95.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on October 17, 2013, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Sex and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Very interesting reading, I’m the producer of My Tattoo Addiction, and i’m always interested in differing reactions to the show. The Title of the show is, I suppose, a way of collating stories that are related to Tattoos. It probably says more about the marketing of a show, than it does the nature of addiction. To be fair though, the proliferation of tattoos and tattoo studios is evidence of how culturally, as a nation, we’ve beciome obsessed with Tattoos. I suppose from our side, many, many more people wopuld watch a show called My tattoo Addiction, compared to My Tattoo Obsession. I’d be really interested in your opinion of Paul, from the first episode of series 2, whose reasons for getting tattoos was to cover his skin.

    Anyway, good article, thanks for watching and i’m glad you enjoyed the show.

  2. Awesome article post.Thanks Again. Much obliged. ddcdeceefded

  3. Hello I have just recently watched your show and am a big fan of jay and his super women tattoos and his collection I was wondering if I could email him about his tattoos and wanted to know.if you could help?

  1. Pingback: Post Of The Week – Thursday 17th October | DHSG Psychology Research Digest

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