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Amy Black
Amy Black: the tattooist casting her artistic eye over the scar tissue of the recovering

The female tattooists turning self-harm scars into art

These women help cover up reminders of a more turbulent mental health for clients with their beautiful artwork

“The pain was incredibly satisfying. I truly believed that I deserved it.” Twenty-year-old Lucy has spent years taking her emotional anguish out on her own flesh. Now she no longer uses physical pain for a coping mechanism, but the scars remain a souvenir of her troubled past.

“Each scar represents a horrible time in my life that I didn't know how to deal with in the moment”, she says. “Just because a scar looks healed – it doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt.”

What would you do if every time you looked down at your forearms, you were reminded that you once longed to end it all? If every summer morning, you face the familiar struggle of choosing the day’s outfit – covering up a quarter of your body in 20 degree heat requires serious planning (and sweating).

For those with self-harm scarring, it’s a harsh reality. Last month, 24-year-old Jordan Supple’s Facebook posts of her self-harm scars racked up 18,000 likes and 12,000 shares. Underneath the image of a forearm littered with thick wounds reads: “This is my arm for the rest of my life.” She goes on to explain what it’s like to bear her darkest times on her naked flesh for the world to see; the stares from shop assistants, the questioning from her boss, her baby niece’s alarmed expression. The solution? Well, in a tolerant, ideal world, self-harmers would go sleeveless with pride and the understanding of the public. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet, so a bunch of genius female artists are offering up an alternative approach.

“Placing a piece of art either over or even beside the scar area can help mask or help take the eye away from the area they don’t want to bring attention to”, Amy Black tells me. Amy got her first tattoo 24 years ago, aged 16, and in 2005, she took ownership of Alive Tattoo in Richmond, Virginia and has since gone on to specialise in nipple tattooing for breast cancer patients and founded non-profit organisation, The Pink Fund.

When she’s not reconstructing post-mastectomy scarring, Amy travels across America, casting her artistic eye over the scar tissue of the recovered and recovering. According to Amy, body art is an increasingly common stage in the process of recovery from a whole spectrum of mental health problems.

“I have done tons of tattoos to help people address severe depression, grief, overcoming eating disorders, anxiety, addictions and more,” she says. “Some clients want to use imagery directly related to their journey, overcoming the issue that caused them to self harm, while others just want something they will like seeing forever that is totally unrelated to their self harm history.” 

“The customer usually just wants to not be ashamed of their scars, not to start a meaningful debate with strangers about mental health issues”

A desire to completely hide the scars is the trend Scottish tattooist, Morag Sangster, sees with most of her clients. “Self harm scars are usually a reminder of hard times that the customer has left behind and the new design is just to be decorative, not about mental health. The customer usually just wants to not be ashamed of their scars, not to start a meaningful debate with strangers about mental health issues”.

Morag admits it can be laborious work. “Scar tissue is harder to work on because of its bumpy nature. The knots and thin bits make it hard to tattoo even lines and shade smoothly. The design has to be forgiving enough to not be ruined by a wobbly line,” she says. 

Design choices vary, but in Morag’s experience, hiding the emotional damage is just as important as disguising the physical. For most, slicing their skin is no longer a solution to emotional pain and the images reflect this change in mind-set.

For Keebra Mason, the crimson roses that decorate her left shoulder are a welcome distraction from the gashes that dominate her collarbone. After a decade of unhappiness that led to self-mutilation and a nasty habit of picking at her wounds, Keebra turned to Amy Black for help.

“No matter how much I tried to ignore the scars, it was impossible”, she says, “I would unconsciously pick at the scars, never allowing them time to heal”. After Amy designed, sketched and eventually embedded the ink into Keebra’s skin, she’d be damned if she let all their hard work go to waste.

“Simply because the art is so beautiful, you don’t wanna destroy it. It has forced me to find healthy alternatives to deal with my self destructive behaviour.”

Amy Black is convinced of art’s capacity to heal emotional, cognitive and physical wounds and it’s for this reason that she’s more than satisfied with her line of work. If her designs help someone to recover from any type of pain, she’s happy.

“My tattoo has forced me to find healthy alternatives to deal with my self destructive behaviour”

“It’s wonderful how the landscape has changed over the years to let people feel more comfortable with choosing tattoo art as a therapeutic form for them. When I first started getting tattooed it wasn't as embedded in the fabric of our society and nowadays its becoming less stigmatised.”

But just how effective is simply masking the scars when the goal is long-term recovery from mental illness and emotional problems? According to Amy Black, the answer is, very.

“I do believe it helps as a working solution. For some, it symbolises having come through a difficult stage or accomplishing a tough goal. For others, the tattoo epitomises their commitment to the changes in their lives that will hopefully be just as permanent as the tattoo.”