Hooked on ink
By Chris ScullinPosted Apr 18, 2012
As Karlie Hooker sits in the partially reclined vinyl chair, she notices the room smells antiseptic, almost like a hospital. The heavily tattooed man across from her finishes fiddling with cords, coils and tubes before asking if she’s ready. She nods. She then hears a buzzing noise as the man brings the needle to her arm. This is not the first time Hooker has had this experience, and it certainly will not be the last.
Hooker is an addict. But her addiction is not to an illicit substance. She is addicted to tattoos.
Hooker always planned on having tattoos, but she never thought she was going to have as many as she does now. She received her first tattoo in November 2009, three weeks after her 18th birthday. Now, only 2 ½ years later, she has 16.
“It’s really addicting,” she said. “Now I want to get full sleeves, and get my legs tattooed and get my chest tattooed. Eventually, I want to get completely covered.”
While Hooker’s desire to consistently go under the needle may seem extreme, those familiar with the tattoo culture know it’s not uncommon. It seems that, for many people, once they receive their first tattoo it’s difficult to not return for another. There are several possible explanations behind tattoo addiction. These include, but are not limited to, a desire for attention, an act of rebellion, a method of self-expression or an enjoyment of the pain that comes with getting a tattoo.
According to Dino Nemec, an artist at Fate Tattoo, on the corner of North High Street and East Norwich, the majority of those who receive tattoos will eventually have more work done on their body.
“For most people that I’ve tattooed, I would say like 70 or 80 percent came back for more,” Nemec said. “Most people … say they become addicted. Once you get one you kind of forget about the pain and are just like, ‘Oh, I want to get this next.’”
Nemec, who has been drawing tattoos on others for nearly seven years, has had firsthand experience with tattoo addiction.
“I never meant to have sleeves,” Nemec said. “Now I’m pretty much covered. I started doing a few here, and then I kind of linked them all together.”
While there is no chemical in tattoos that makes them biologically addictive, Jean Hoitsma, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in addiction, believes that there are several aspects of tattoos that can lead to a person becoming addicted.
“Addiction is any unnatural love affair with … anything that takes you away to a higher power or connection with others,” Hoitsma said.
The causes of addiction can be physiological, social or psychological. Hoitsma believes that tattoo addiction is likely caused by “a combination of social and psychological” factors.
“They could find the whole tattoo process mood altering,” Hoitsma said. “When you’re addicted to alcohol, it’s not just the drinking, but it’s everything associated with it. With alcohol, there’s a psychological addiction, but there’s also a physiological addiction. In other words, your body builds up a tolerance to the alcohol. But with a tattoo (addiction), it would be more psychological because there’s no chemical dependence.”
Hoitsma said that a person can become addicted to tattoos for a number of different reasons. One of these reasons is the extra attention that comes from getting a tattoo.
“People who get tattoos might think, ‘Well when I get a tattoo I feel good. People come up to me and say, ‘Wow, I really like your tattoo,’” Hoitsma said. “That gives them a rush. But then that wears off, so they have to get back and get another tattoo to feel the rush again … pretty soon they’ve got their whole body tattooed.”
Tattoos can also lead to negative effects on relationships. Hooker said her tattoos often to lead to arguments between her and her mother.
“My family is completely against tattoos,” Hooker said. “My mom hates every single one that I have. She thinks they’re disgusting and she says, ‘It’s not lady-like to have tattoos.’”
Hooker is also required to wear long sleeved shirts and pants at her waitressing job. While this is not a problem in the colder months, she said that it can become quite uncomfortable during the summer.
The pain associated with getting a tattoo may also seem attractive to some people. Tattoo guns work by depositing small amounts of ink about one millimeter beneath the surface of the skin. This ink is delivered by a needle, which punctures the skin anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times every minute. A single, average-sized tattoo can require hundreds of thousands of punctures. Depending on the placement of the tattoo, and on the person having the tattoo done, the pain caused by these punctures can vary.
This pain causes the body to release adrenaline. Adrenaline can cause a person to feel a rush of energy, and people have been known to become addicted to its effects. According to Hoitsma, it is likely that some people become addicted to tattoos as a method of releasing adrenaline in their body.
“You know that burning feeling when you fall down and scrape your knee? That’s what it feels like,” said Hooker, explaining that tattoos on feet and hands typically hurt the most due to the large amounts of nerve endings located in these parts of the body. “But even though it hurts, it’s fun.”
It is no surprise that a tattoo addiction can be quite costly. A skilled artist can charge $100 per hour or more.
While a wealthy person, such as a professional athlete, is unlikely to be negatively affected by the cost of a tattoo, a person who cannot afford tattoos but continues to buy them anyway may have a problematic tattoo addiction.
“I’ve probably spent over $6,000 on tattoos,” Hooker said, adding that she thinks it’s money well spent. “It’s good art and it’s going to be on my body until the day I die. If I spent $6,000 on a car it could break down in a couple years.”
While a person with numerous tattoos is not necessarily in danger, those with a serious tattoo addiction have the potential to suffer just as much harm as those addicted to illegal substances.
“(Tattoo addiction is harmful) only if it is your sole focus,” Hoitsma said. “If you lack self-esteem, and you feel that your body is not acceptable the way it is, and that more tattoos would make it better, that is a problem. More tattoos don’t seem to improve it, so you’re not addressing the underlying psychological issues of feeling inferior.”
“If you have a tattoo, you aren’t going to be driving on the road and be impaired,” Hoitsma said. “But if it becomes all-encompassing and you become so obsessed with the tattoos, and it takes you away from friendships and social interaction, and you have so many that you are eliminated from jobs, then it can be a problem … it can be just as paralyzing (as drug addiction).”