Survivor Tattoos

Paper 1: Summary

Designing a reclamation of body and health: cancer survivor tattoos as coping ritual by Jordan Eschler, PhD, Arpita Bhattacharya, and Wanda Pratt, PhD

Update: This paper has received a Best Paper Honorable Mention award. Yay for the participants and authors!

Preprint link. This is a summary of research findings that were peer-reviewed and will be published in the proceedings of the 2018 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference. I will present these findings in April 2018 to an audience of researchers—mostly technology designers and social scientists. If you have questions, please email the corresponding author, Jordan.

The health care community doesn’t tend to think of tattoos as health information; in fact, most health-related literature related to tattoos is published in academic journals about “deviant behavior.” (Stick with me here; I have a survivor tattoo myself, and reject this viewpoint very much!)

My motivation for designing this study—asking survivors about tattoos they had designed related to the cancer experience—was intended to challenge the reputation of tattoos among health care professionals. Moreover, I wanted to explore the role of survivor tattoos in post-cancer coping and processing of emotions like grief, fear, and hope.

I interviewed 19 participants on the telephone about their tattoos, using an interview guide that was meant to elicit participants’ experiences in designing, discussing, and displaying their cancer tattoos. Two co-authors assisted me in analyzing the anonymized interview transcripts. We found substantial evidence that the act of getting a cancer tattoo is a type of ritual that can contribute to a process called post-traumatic growth.

Post-traumatic growth has three primary components, and the act of getting a survivor tattoo incorporates all three of these components, detailed below.

Changed sense of self is an enhanced ability to deal with difficult emotions. We found survivor tattoos contributed to this changed sense of self by helping survivors cope with changes to their bodies, such as scars from treatment. In addition, tattoos helped survivors figure out how cancer would be integrated into their self-identity (if at all!).

Changed relationships with others has two parts: finding the appropriate help from others, and seeking out healthy social relationships. Participants described two benefits of their tattoos in terms of this type of growth— the first benefit was figuring out whether to assume a “public” cancer identity. The second benefit involved strengthening relationships with intimate partners and friends through discussing the meaning of the tattoo, which was a kind of conduit for expressing emotions about having had cancer.

Changed philosophy of life is the aspect of post-traumatic growth that allows a survivor to find meaning in their experiences and find a sense of emotional relief in processing those experiences. Participants in this study described getting back “control” or “balance” from their survivor tattoos. More than one participant also used the word “ritual” to describe the act of the tattoo.

Essentially, our findings point to the benefits of survivor tattoos as a coping strategy that supports post-traumatic growth after cancer. A survivor tattoo is likely to support mental health in cancer recovery! In the paper, we discuss how the benefits of designing, discussing, and displaying a cancer survivor tattoo could be replicated using other methods, particularly for people who don’t necessarily want a(nother) tattoo after cancer. We also discuss the importance of tattoos as health artifacts, arguing for a change in viewpoint about tattoos in the context of health care.

You might be wondering why I chose CHI as a venue; this is due to our discussion of the “culture” and “language” of cancer survivor tattoos, which has been perpetuated to a great extent online. I explain this work’s relevance to the CHI community more thoroughly in the full paper. Thank you to my participants for sharing their stories, as well as my oncologist, Dr. Green, for his encouragement in carrying out this work.

Did you participate in this research? Looking for more information? Participant info here.