How Tattoos Help Sexual Assault Survivors Reclaim Their Bodies
For years, women have been getting tattoos as a means to heal from personal trauma.
Self-portrait by Marlo Kaleookalani Lualemana
When Marti was 18 years old, she was raped by multiple men at a frat party. She was a virgin. "It happened in the beginning of my first semester freshman year," she recalls. "I was ashamed; I turned to drugs and alcohol because I didn't know how else to cope with the trauma of what happened." Now 34 years old, married, and living in Minneapolis, Marti enjoys cooking, ballroom dancing, and Lady Gaga. After hearing Gaga got matching tattoos with the sexual assault survivors who joined the singer onstage at last year's Oscar ceremony, Marti decided to get a similar tattoo. "I wanted to take back my body," Marti says. "Gaga was so brave, so I thought to myself, 'I can be brave too.'"
Gaga, of course, was not the first to survivor to cope through a tattoo. For years, sexual assault survivors have been getting tattoos to heal and reclaim their body. Marlo Kaleo'okalani Lualemana, a Hawaiian tattoo artist at Earthbound Tattoo Studio in Monterey, California, specializes in giving tattoos to many sexual assault survivors. "I am touched by each survivor I've had the pleasure to tattoo," she says. "I feel in some small way I've helped them to see past the pain and begin anew. I tell them I will never forget them and they are not alone. We've cried together, shared our stories, and have come to an understanding as to what their tattoo means to each of them."
Lualemana is empathetic to the survivors because she is one herself. "I was sexually assaulted at five and nine by two different females," she says. "[It] caused me a lot of emotional trauma." She attributes her healing to drawing and painting, skills she has utilized as a tattoo artist, and her own tattoos have played a huge role in her recovery. "I have elements within my tattoos that represent strength and empowerment, reminders that I am a survivor," she says. "I am strong. I am fierce."
Survivors receive tattoos for a variety of reasons. Six months after their assault, Sonya Vatomsky, a 31-year-old writer living in Seattle who uses they/they pronouns, got a tattoo of an anglerfish with the words "I just care," lyrics from the Manic Street Preachers song "Drug Drug Druggy."
"It was about empathy but also anger," Vatomsky explains. "What we think of when we see anglerfish are all female: the big, scary ones with the lures and the teeth. Male anglerfish are tiny and hang off the females and then atrophy. I was really into this gender essentialist imagery at the time, which got uncomfortable when I started realizing I was non-binary."
Their assault took place at the 30th birthday party of a friend of a friend. "It started consensually and then the next second I'm getting hit in the face and choked," they recall. "'No' didn't do anything, so we ended up physically struggling. I had hand-shaped bruises the next morning. I also gave him my number. I'm telling you this because I felt so ashamed of that later—all the ways in which I reacted incorrectly according to whatever script we're fed as 'proper assault victims.' That shame really got in the way."
Other survivors turn to tattoos to reinforce positive messages. Amisha Treat, 28-year-old feminist blogger living in Minnesota, received a tattoo that's a banner with flowers and the quote: "I Deserve Good Things."
"It is a constant reminder that my scars, physical and emotional, aren't always ugly, and even the ones that are don't define me," she says. "I brought it to my tattoo artist, and we came up with the design."
Lualemana believes that tattoos can help survivors reclaim their bodies. "They feel their tattoo represents a new beginning," she explains. "They don't want that negative, shameful experience to haunt them. They will never forget what had happened, but no longer want it to consume their lives. Looking at their tattoos will be a constant reminder to not let guilt and shame define what they went through, but instead feel proud of themselves for reclaiming their lives back."
Tattoos, of course, are not for everyone. Recovery from sexual assault is as individual as the one in six Americans who are victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Many women describe tattoos as a part of, but not their whole, recovery process. For Vatomsky, their survivor tattoo is just one step on the road to recovery, along with quitting drinking, writing poetry, and getting into taxidermy.
"I got an intentionally hideous fish on my upper right ass cheek, and there was some defiling and reclaiming symbolism there, like a just-try-to-sexualize-me-now sort of thing," they said. "In the end, it's a rad tattoo and reminds me that during one of the worst times in my life, my two main feelings were anger and optimism, and that's not that bad."