Are Tattoos Addictive for Some People?

A female tattoo artist working on a customer

Tattoo addiction is not formally recognized, even as a behavioral addiction. However, some people describe the process of getting more and more tattoos as a kind of addiction. This article explores some of the addictive qualities of becoming tattooed.

Financial and Emotional Commitment

In a similar way to becoming a drug user, becoming a tattoo collector involves considerable financial commitment, physical discomfort, and social stigma, so, as with drug addiction, it requires devotion to the process. This level of commitment is an important part of all addictions and was explored in detail in the excessive appetites theory of addiction. Not only is a good deal of money invested in the addictive behavior, but the individual will often experience financial difficulty meeting the level of financial commitment required to maintain the addictive behavior.

If someone is willing to go through financial hardship as a result of saving for a tattoo, it is an indication that being tattooed has taken on the kind of intense emotional commitment that defies reason, so characteristic of addictive behavior. The behavior makes no sense unless it is understood through the eyes of the person performing the behavior. In this case, the choice to obtain another tattoo is so valuable to the individual, that they are willing to endure hardship and go without things that are much more essential to their basic needs.

A Spiritual Process

Becoming tattooed, for many, is perceived as a somewhat spiritual process, a form of personal expression. Again, there are overlaps with drug use sub-cultures in this respect, particularly users of marijuana, ecstasy, and psychedelics. Users of each of these types of drugs have described the experience as spiritual, and even cite the spiritual connection they feel with others and with the universe when they are high as a motivation for taking these drugs.

Use of Needles

The use of needles in tattooing is part of the ritual, which is also an important part of the addiction process. There is an obvious parallel between the voluntary use of needles in tattooing and the use of intravenous drugs. Having a tattoo, or using a needle to inject drugs, is a way of declaring and demonstrating, even to oneself, one's ability to withstand the associated pain and show the stoicism and courage required to follow through. This demonstration of a high level of physical stamina, bravado, and machismo, seems important to the process, regardless of whether the individual is male or female, and is thus a way of disproving any past accusations of weakness or vulnerability.

Overlap With Alcohol Use

Research measuring alcohol consumption using a breathalyzer shows that people with tattoos and piercings do, in fact, drink higher levels of alcohol than those who do not.

Risks and Regrets

Addictions can cause people to behave in ways they later regret, but sometimes, it is too late to undo the damage. From drunk driving to family violence, addictions have a well-recognized reputation for causing serious mistakes that can cause harm to oneself or to others. Tattoos can also be a source of regret, although the damage is typically done to one's own body or social status.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Unfortunately, both tattooed people and people who do not have tattoos are unaware of many of the risks of tattoos. There are two levels of medical risks to having tattoos, mild and more serious. Mild risks include the kind of side effects that can be treated at home, such a bruising, swelling, and mild skin infections. More serious risks associated with tattoos severe discomfort and pain, inflammation, sensitivity and allergic reactions to tattoo ink.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.