Exploring the Meaning and Purpose of Tattooing
By Sheldon Shalley, LCSW
As I left a recent case conference with colleagues following a brief discussion about the possible meanings of a client’s tattoos, I see in my mind’s eye the body with hundreds of acupuncture points running along the meridians weaving together an energetic web that covers the body like a tapestry. As I reflected on this image, I found myself wondering if there might be some connection between tattooing and acupuncture and its stimulation of certain meridians to facilitate healing. Both tattooing and acupuncture use needles to puncture the skin. Acupuncture involves the stimulation of anatomical points on the body by penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands.
Traditionally, tattooing was done by cutting designs into the skin with sticks, animal bones or a sharp point set in a wooden handle and then rubbing some ink or ashes mixed with breast milk or other agent into the resulting wounds. In modern times an electric tattoo machine inserts ink into the skin via a single needle or a group of needles which are attached to an oscillating unit. The unit rapidly and repeatedly drives the needles in and out of the skin, usually 80 to 150 times a second to create the desired design. Both acupuncture and tattooing use needles to penetrate and stimulate the skin. But could they serve similar purposes or outcomes?
Acupuncture is thought to restore health by removing energy imbalances and blockages in the body. Practitioners believe that there is a vital life force or energy called qi (pronounced “chee”) that flows through the body, and between the skin surface and the internal organs, along channels or pathways called meridians. Qi regulates the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical harmony of the body by keeping this invisible energy field in balance. The subtle energy or qi symbolizes the “energetic” continuum between matter and spirit. On the psycho-emotional level this means that emotions, attitudes and beliefs can be accessed via the subtle energies to release their negative grip on the body where the client is holding this pattern. Qi anticipates Einstein’s equation E=MC2 where matter and spirit are only distinguishable by the difference in the level of their vibration.
For example, Dennis Willmont, an acupuncture therapist gives the example of a person who developed low self-esteem by being forced to conform to family expectations and not being allowed to assert himself growing up. This person might develop chronic frustration and repressed anger. The resulting energy and emotional stagnation builds up in the Liver and Gall Bladder meridians and creates physical and emotional problems. This could cause migraines because the Gall Bladder meridian travels over and affects the side of the head. Later, when the unused energy in these meridians becomes weak and the Liver and Gall Bladder functions start to collapse, depression could easily set in. Acupuncture will adjust the subtle energy so that the pattern can be released. The symptoms disappear because the body is no longer holding the repressed anger. Once the energy is balanced and flowing appropriately through the meridian, the energy will become more effectively channeled through appropriate self-assertion.
There are 12 main meridians and 8 secondary meridians. There are as many as 365 acupuncture points bilaterally on the human body that are located along the meridians. Each point has a different effect on the energy that passes through it. There are also numerous “extra points” not associated with a particular meridian. By stimulating these points, acupuncture may be used to raise or lower the level of the energy in a specific part of the body in order to restore the energy balance.
Each meridian with its associated points is believed to refer to a specific organ in the body. Because your meridians, like your hands, carry electromagnetic and more subtle energies, you can influence their flow by tracing them, keeping your hands in direct contact with your body or a few inches away from it. The energy will follow your hand, and the flow of energy along the meridian’s circuitry will be strengthened. You can also influence the flow of energy with acupuncture. As a shamanic practitioner trained in energy medicine, I also use my hands to remove blocks in the energy body. This causes me to wonder if tattooing might also stimulate or influence the subtle energies that flow from these meridians and acupuncture points and strengthen (or weaken) them as well in the psyche’s attempt to restore balance and effect healing.
My hypothesis is tattoos are placed along certain meridians as an unconscious attempt to effect physical, emotional, mental and/or spiritual healing and health through the balancing of the electromagnetic and subtle energies associated with the organ of that particular meridian or a trauma inflicted at that particular point on the body. Pertinent to the meaning will be the particular image of the tattoo.
There is historical evidence to support such a hypothesis. While the earliest evidence we have of tattoos going back 7000 years is cosmetic, the second oldest evidence we have is medicinal. In examining the 57 tattoos of the preserved body of the 5,300-year-old mummified “Iceman,” researchers discovered that approximately 80 percent of those tattoos overlap with classical Chinese acupuncture points utilized to treat Rheumatism, a medical condition that plagued that Iceman. Other tattoos were found to be located on or near acupuncture meridians that may have had the purpose of relieving other ailments, like gastro-intestinal problems. Researchers discovered that the Iceman had a whipworm infection. The distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on the iceman’s body corresponded to areas of strain-induced degeneration and pain suggesting they may have been applied to alleviate pain and therefore essentially therapeutic.
To further support the tattoo-therapeutic hypothesis, “Colin Dale, a tattooist in Copenhagen, Denmark, conducted a small test by tattooing a client plagued by asthma, rheumatism, headaches, tinnitus in his ear and a loud snoring habit with marks similar to the Iceman and in many of the same spots. Dale had an acupuncturist on hand to recommend locations that aligned with certain acupuncture points. After three months, the client reports that just about all of his pains and symptoms had noticeably eased, if not completely disappeared. By a year, some had returned, but nowhere near the original intensity. The acupuncturist compared the results of the one tattooing session to 10 to 15 acupuncture treatments. The acupuncturist, Irg Bernhardt, says “In my estimation, this project shows that tattooing of acupuncture points [has] a sustained therapeutic effect, not just for a short period of time, since it actually seems to work for the long term.”
Tattooing has a long and varied history going back to 3500 B.C. A review of the history of tattoos shows that in some cultures they seemed to be a permanent form of body adornment. In other cultures tattoos were a mark of nobility and not to have them was testimony of low birth. Among the Greeks and Romans tattoos marked someone as belonging to either a religious sect or to an owner in the case of slaves. In some cases tattoos served a punitive measure to mark criminals. In other cultures tattoos were the mark of a high status. Other times they were given to warriors at various stages in their lives as a kind of rite of passage. Tattoos were also regarded as enhancing a warrior’s features, making him more attractive to the opposite sex. Tattoos were used by some women on their faces, especially around their nose, mouth and chin to prevent the skin from becoming wrinkled and to keep them young. Anthropological studies show that tattooing seems to have sprung up independently around the world as a permanent way to place protective or therapeutic symbols upon the body, then as a means of marking people out into appropriate social, political or religious groups or simply as a form of self-expression or fashion statement.
With the emergence of Christianity tattooing fell into disfavor, especially within the Roman Empire. The Christians felt that tattoos disfigured the body that was “made in God’s image.” Tattooing began to make a comeback in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that tattooing exploded in this country to become the multibillion dollar industry it is today. For me the re-emergence of tattooing falls under the general category of the return of the repressed, connecting us to the body and the earth and the indigenous and ancestral ways.
Now that modern science has been able to show a mind-body connection, one must ask if tattooing might have a similar therapeutic effect as acupuncture since acupuncture has now been shown to have therapeutic and healing effects on mental and emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and trauma as well as a way to strengthen our emotional and spiritual health. I asked my son, Todd, who has several tattoos if he would be willing to provide the fodder for me to explore my hypothesis that the placement of and the images used in tattooing have an unconscious purpose to balance imbalances in the energy system as an attempt at self-healing. He agreed.
Here are pictures of Todd’s tattoos. Todd got his first tattoo, a court jester, on his left shoulder blade in his early 20s. Later he covered it up with an image of the Aztec sun. He then put his nickname “shalldog” above the Aztec sun.
Next is what he says looks like an imprint of a bike tire that drove across his arm. This tattoo consists of the names of his wife, Sutton, and sons, Hudson and Cooper. This tattoo goes all the way around his arm.
Later he added what he calls an “organic tattoo” consisting of the peace sign, the yin-yang symbol and a sun and connected it to the court jester/Aztec Sun/nickname tattoo.
Sometime later Todd put a star on the inside of his right arm and then added the name Sutton (his wife) and pin-stripes around his arm.
Then Todd added a tattoo of the initials TSC standing for Todd Shalley Company, his hair salon, inside a Harley symbol.
For our discussion let us take a look at two of Todd’s tattoos: first, the court jester-Aztec sun with nickname, Shalldog on his left shoulder.
In the diagram you can see the meridians that run across the shoulder and down the backside of the arm. These meridians are the Small Intestine and Triple Warmer Meridians. Notice how the Aztec Sun which overlays the Court Jester is located in the exact spot of the Small Intestine Meridian with the lower point of the Aztec sun mirroring the lower point of the meridian on the shoulder. Then notice how the name “Shalldog” and the arc over it are located on the Triple Warmer Meridian.
As you follow the tattooing down the left arm, you can see how various points of the tattoo run along those two meridians and will activate various acupuncture points along those meridians. What if anything might this suggest?
According to Chinese medicine, acupuncture and meridian therapy, the psycho-emotional symptoms associated with the small intestine meridian are feeling confused, lacking mental clarity, inability to assimilate ideas, feeling insecure, forgetfulness, indecision, restlessness and difficulty in expressing emotions. To the extent that this meridian is blocked, one might experience such symptoms. When the small intestine meridian is balanced, it influences healthy expressions of love, joy, warmth, vitality, excitement, memory, ability in making decisions, and clarity of thought.
Todd said that he “was looking through a book and just liked the court jester” adding “I was always a joker in school.” But why was Todd a joker in school? Besides being part of his naturally extroverted and out-going, fun-loving personality, was the joking also some kind of coping mechanism, a way to deal with hurt and pain? Todd was an overweight child until his sophomore year in high school. His friends often made fun of his weight. He reports that he learned to handle their jokes and ribbing by making jokes, laughing and making fun himself. But recently he has acknowledged feeling hurt and embarrassed during those years. Feeling shame and emotional pain. From an energy medicine point of view, such emotional pain can take up residence, so to speak, in the body and affect the energy flow, blocking the meridians, causing an imbalance in the mind-body system resulting in both emotional and physical problems.
Historically the court jester is the one in the King’s court who can tell the truth to the king in a jest, when nobody else dares.Since the jester did outrageous things all the time, he could speak the grave truth and get away with it as something said in “jest”. Undoubtedly, many who wished to influence the king did so through the jester. The jester is the one who appears to be stupid or ignorant, but is actually the only one who sees clearly. He confronts authority openly, or he subverts it while appearing to play along. The court jester is a symbol for quick wit, triumph over an obstacle and difficult to fool.
Could it be that Todd’s choice of the court jester was an unconscious attempt to healing the emotional pain of being the butt of fat jokes, a way to heal the pain of being the “joker” as a way to deal with and avoid the pain of being made fun of? Was this a case where the joking was both the cause of the pain and also the attempt to deal with the pain? Was his placing the jester on the small intestine meridian an unconscious attempt to heal the confused, insecure, unacknowledged (forgetfulness) and unexpressed painful feelings of being the butt of jokes about his weight?
Is his turning the court jester into the Aztec sun another attempt, albeit unconscious, to heal the hurt from the jester/joker in him? The sun is a major symbol throughout history way beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that in general the sun is a symbol for the generative power of the masculine divinity as energy that is alive, renewable and constantly available. It is a source of life, light and healing and by its circle shape is a symbol for the Self and wholeness. Therefore, for Todd to replace the court jester with an image of the sun suggests an unconscious attempt to transform and heal the pain of the joker in him, the joker that was his way of dealing with the jokes he endured about his weight.
The nickname, “Shalldog” was given to Todd by a male friend, a nickname that Todd liked, felt good about and gave him a “cool feeling,” he says. For Todd to add Shalldog above the sun symbol reinforces the idea that these tattoos had something to do with healing blocked energy that resulted from the emotional pain of his overweight years, a way to make him feel good about himself.
It is also interesting to me that he placed this important tattoo on the Triple Warmer Meridian. From a psycho-emotional point of view, some of the most recognizable symptoms when the Triple Warmer Meridian is out of balance are feeling hopeless, lonely, depletion of energy, feeling drained, weighed down and lacking in joy. When the Triple Warmer Meridian is balanced one feels light and hopeful, kindhearted and happy with the direction of one’s life and has the ability to express self with ease. These are the feelings that the nickname, Shalldog, and the sun represent. Over time Todd added to these tattoos so that they formed a sleeve down and around his left shoulder and arm. This more expanded tattoo covers the acupuncture points along all the meridians of the left arm: the Small Intestine, the Triple Warmer, and the Large Intestine on the top of the arm and the Heart, Pericardium or Circulation-Sex and the Lung meridians on the underneath side of the arm. The psycho-emotional meaning of these meridians will be discussed below.
Now let’s take a look at the placement of the tattoo of the star with the name of his wife, Sutton, surrounded by a pin-striped design on inside of the right arm.
The three meridians that run through the inside of the arm are the Heart Meridian, the Pericardium also called the Circulation-Sex Meridian and the Lung Meridian. You can see that he placed the name of his wife along the Heart and Circulation-Sex Meridians. The Circulation-Sex has a powerful influence on a person’s mental and emotional states. Its goal is to “create feelings of joy and/or pleasure for the Heart.” The heart meridian is the ruler of all emotions. Signs of imbalance include sadness, absence of laughter, depression, fear, anxiety, hysteria, erratic behavior, alternating joy and melancholy, dullness, yearning for love, jealousy and sorrow. When balanced: Tranquility, gentleness, emotional balance, spirit, love, integrity, optimism, emotional and spiritual growth, zest for life, control of thoughts and senses, conscience and wisdom.
It is also interesting to me that the Heart Meridian is paired with the Small Intestine Meridian which is where Todd started this whole process in his early 20s by placing the court jester (the inner joker that helped him handle being made fun of) on the Small Intestine Meridian. By placing of positive symbols of Shalldog and Sutton, his wife, along the heart meridians one can see how Todd may have been intuitively (and unconsciously) working to bring balance and healing to childhood pain that he was still holding.
It is also of interest to me that the tattoo of his wife Sutton also runs along the Lung Meridian. The Lungs are responsible for establishing the foundation of subtle energy for the entire body. The Lungs house the body’s Seven Emotions and are responsible for self-protection and self-preservation. Their negative attributes are disappointment, sadness, grief, despair, anxiety, shame and sorrow. Once again we can see how this meridian might have also been compromised by the emotional pain Todd experienced related to his weight.
Todd says that he would like to mirror the sleeve tattoo of the left arm on his right arm and put a tattoo across his back so his body would be balanced. But he says “that will take a lot of money.”
And so I leave you with the following questions:
1) Does a positive tattoo open, strengthen and balance the energy along a particular meridian and thereby foster healing and growth in the areas that pertain to that particular meridian?
(2) Does a negative close down, interfere and bring imbalance to energy along a particular meridian and thereby contribute to keeping a client stuck in a negative pattern?
(3) Do people place tattoos along meridians that pertain to organs in the body that holds the pain of abuse or trauma? Or do they place tattoos over the actual places in the body where they were abused?
When scanning the energy body of a client I sometimes come across energetic imprints of their abuse, that actual imprint of the beating or the slap or even the hurtful words. It is all there like tattoos. We probably all carry unseen tattoos, vibrating with the pain of the past.
 Willmont, Dennis, Acupunture Education Series #2, Acupuncture and Psychology, 1994
Gambino, Megan. Can Tattoos Be Medicinal?. smithsonian.com, December 10, 2012.
 Lineberry, Cate. Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History. Smithsonian.com. January 1, 2007.
 Lineberry, Cate. Ibid
 Asaff, Beth. Jester Tattoos