Are Tattoos Psychologically Addictive?

Tattoos have not only gained popularity throughout recent generations, but they have also been the center of controversy in regard to addiction. Psychologists and other addiction experts have reached a census that addiction can mean either psychological or physical addiction. Addiction is a progressive, chronic, and multidimensional biopsychosocial disease that can manifest itself in a number of ways. The two dimensions that encompass addictions are physical addictions like substance dependence and psychological addictions involving behavioral processes. 

Physical and psychological addictions differ from one another in the sense that physical addictions, as assumed, alter the biological state homeostasis in the body. While psychological addictions still have a physiological effect to some degree, it does ancillary damage toward emotions, perceptions, and most prominently behavior. Psychological addictions are referred to as non-substance-related disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). As of now the only non-substance-related disorder is Gambling disorder. This is not to say that the gambling disorder is the only “psychological addiction” that exists, it simply means that there is a commensurable amount of biopsychosocial empirical evidence to support such a diagnosis. It requires rigorous clinical judgement to justify what constitutes a mental disorder and what does not, let alone addiction and its intricate processes. There’s a difference between addictions and enhanced neurotransmitter activity and the common denominator that separates a potential addiction to a diagnosable addiction is dependency. 

So how does the complexity of psychology have anything to do with the simplicity of tattoos? To answer, it is paramount to know where the art of tattooing even came from in the first place. From an evolutionary stance, tattoos were used as symbolic representations within the indigenous community and eventually blossomed into cultural traditions. The indigenous tribes continued to use tattoos as visual diagrams signifying the land they occupied, similar to what the modern world would consider to be an address. Contrarily, Japanese tattoo traditions looked entirely differently. Tattoos were deemed as a form of punishment for Japanese criminals up until that late 17th century when more decorative tattoos were emerging. In America, tattoos notoriously originated from sailors who were often depicted with patriotic symbols and initials of their loved ones.

Although tattoos are not included in the DSM-5, this does not mean they never will or don’t have the capacity to be an addiction. However, it also does not rid them of the misconstrued “addictive” properties that they can produce. 

Woman with tattoos holding a mug

When a person gets “inked” it is a healthy biological reaction to release neurotransmitters like norepinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin, dopamine which trigger the release of endorphins. This explains the “opiate-like high” that surges the brain after getting a tattoo. Although endorphins and other key constituents like dopamine psychologically reinforce the behavior of tattooing that does not automatically make it cross-over into the addictive zone, it just means that there are neurological reinforcers present. Without endorphins, the pain of getting a tattoo would be much worse. As a matter of fact, each time the tattoo needle penetrates the skin, it does so at a rate of 50 to 3,000 times per minute. In order to confidently label tattoos as addictive, there is a need for more research in the behavioral health field to hopefully diminish the ongoing debate if tattoos are addictive or not.