Proclaiming tattoos to be inherently narcissistic is hardly insightful; after all, tattoos are visually disruptive, and, like most things that are visually disruptive, catch the eye and attract attention to themselves. By undergoing the inking, the tattooed gains attention, positive currency in the human system of self-worth, for an external modification that makes her stand out from the rest of the pack.
That attention, however, is only half the puzzle. As any great artist will tell you, the negative space in a piece is as important as the feature. To belabor the metaphor, what the eye is asked to miss is just as crucial as what the eye is asked to see.
Consider what tattoos are in message form – and remember, if you can see them, they are for you. A tattoo is the literal act of covering the wearer with an image she prefers to her own natural state – in essence, hiding true aspects of herself underneath a chosen, solely external design.
The emotional logic follows this path:
P: I am not beautiful enough or worthwhile as I am; if people, including myself, get a glimpse of me laid bare, they’ll abandon me.
SC: I need to hide myself.
SC: I need to portray something beautiful to attract attention.1
MC: A tattoo solves both problems.
There’s a brutally honest, and I assume autobiographical, scene in the first season of Girls that demonstrates this dyadic process perfectly: Lena Dunham is explaining to that weird dude willing to plow her how she got tattooed specifically because she gained a lot of weight very fast, and felt like it was the only way to “regain control” over her body. The shame Lena felt at her sudden weight gain led her to distract attention from it by simultaneously hiding portions of her body beneath ink and providing a visual catch away from her belly fat.
Both the hiding and distracting mechanisms suggest narcissistic personality traits, not just the latter. The narcissist’s greatest fear is being exposed as a fraud and abandoned. In order to avoid this untenable outcome, narcissists hide themselves, especially aspects they consider negative, out of a deep-seated sense of internalized shame. Narcissists do not fundamentally accept that people will forgive them their flaws without withdrawing love, and often cannot forgive their own perceived flaws.
Hiding and painting over the flaws is easier than fixing the underlying sense of self-worth, but it’s a short-term strategy; just as tattoos look like shit on aging skin, the narcissist’s compensation strategies fade and wither in the face of deeper issues.
Update: Here’s a first-hand account of a fat feminist discussing how she deliberately hid a part of her body she felt ashamed of with a tattoo in order to cultivate a specific “acceptable” image. It doesn’t get much clearer than this.
 Here, we finally see one advantage of tattooing over cutting. Cutting scars hide the unmodified self, but typically receive only negative attention.
There’s a girl in my gym absolutely covered in tats. Well, more accurately, there are at least 15 girls in my gym absolutely covered in tats. This one just happens to have the most spectacular ass of the bunch, in no small part due to the fact that ass exercises make up the near-entirety of her routine. I believe I saw her doing light skullcrushers once, but it was in between supersets of glute bridges and mule kicks.
Many heavily tattooed girls are.
To get tattooed – heavily, more ink than skin, covered in tattoos – you have to go through a significant amount of pain. I’ve often been told by inkwomen the world over that the pain becomes a fast addiction – that once they got their first taste of the needle, they couldn’t wait to repeat the process. That the pain makes them feel alive.
What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong with that is not the oft-cited rationalization shared by cutters of “I feel numb normally, so the pain just lets me feel something.” Asking a cutter/human canvas why they feel numb is a red herring, because if they were simply searching for a hypercharged exit from their adolescent ennui via physical sensation they’d masturbate more. Or take up jogging.
The pain itself is the message, not the escape the pain brings. The pain itself tells the observer and reminds the canvas that she hates herself enough to deserve the pain, which is why it brings her temporary mental relief: the overwhelming sensation of acute pain brought on by the needle or the cutting implement aligns her physical state with her own self-image, thus perversely lifting her emotional state by eliminating any uncomfortable discordant thought. There are, after all, two ways to match her self-esteem to her general frame: she can raise the former, which is difficult, or she can trash the latter.
What if tattoos didn’t hurt? Would they still be a signal of low self-image?1 Stay tuned.
1. Hint: yes.