I get asked a lot if tattoos hurt, I’m used to the question. I always smile a bit and say yes, obviously tattoos hurt. I didn’t know why I was smiling until I realized I enjoy the pain and the tattoo process. Actually, I love the pain of the tattoo needle. It’s therapy for me, tattoo parlors have always had more healing power for me than therapist’s offices. I’ve spent lots of hours in both of them but gotten more growth out of tattoo shops. At tattoo shops there is lots of art, jokes, music, and interesting stories. You’ll see ribbon tattoos for cancer patients, portraits of loved ones, and veterans getting their military ink. There are powerful stories of transformation, empowerment, and heartbreak. You’ve heard of traditional therapy, maybe you’ve tried it. If you haven’t tried tattoo therapy, read on.

Walking into a tattoo shop always gave me excitement and leaving gave me relief. The pain let me know I was alive. I got the feeling that I was seeking but not getting from my VA counselor.  There is a natural high, with the rush of dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins. Like a runners high. But you don’t have to sweat for the fix.  I get a great feeling walking out of a tattoo because I pushed through the pain to get it and I’m forever changed. In the tattoo parlor, you get an escape from the real world…you don’t get that in doctors’ offices. Every tattoo is a form of therapy, symbolizing something.  I’ve gotten a drunk tattoo outside a military base, it shows who I was at the time, an impulsive young Army private.  But I also have a meaningful Doc Holiday tattoo to symbolize coming back from my first deployment and driving to Tombstone Arizona with my best friends in an RV. My Doc Holliday tattoo reminds me I always have at least one more fight left in me.

Tattoos throughout time have always had a home on warriors. The world used to tattoo its criminals, to mark and shame them. That has led to a negative connotation associated with tattoos that a lot of “respectable” people still have today. My mom freaked out at my first tattoo, she is a judge and the tattoos she sees are on criminals. Militaries throughout history have long had a love affair with body art. Samurai in Japan started tattooing themselves for a practical reason, to identify where to take their body if they fell in combat. You’ll see practical uses in today’s warriors, I have friends who have their blood type tattooed on them. Some cultures even gave their fighters their first tattoo when they brought home their first enemy head from battle, Native Americans inked their victories into their skin. Veterans are strong people and strong people express themselves. One way to express who you are is to get tatted up.

The military is a culture as much as a profession and there will be hundreds of varied tattoos in any military formation. We love laughing at the bad military tattoos as much as we love the good ones. Veterans understand commitment, we live it when we swear our oaths. Tattoos are a commitment and veterans don’t shy away from commitment. Modern veterans are tattooed veterans, we have more tattoos than civilians. Our tattoos serve as visual reminders of our experiences, the good and the bad. Your body is a canvas, don’t go to the grave with it being blank. Fill it with your memories, your passions, and your dreams. Commemorate your service with a tattoo, the military is loaded with symbolism, and it isn’t hard to think of something to get inked.

Transformation is key for veteran betterment. We want to remember our friends, where we served, and what we did. Don’t only put your service on your hat, put it on your skin. A lot of veterans get military tattoos when they get out of the military, because it provides closure and acts as a permanent reminder of who we are. They provide a boost of confidence that’s addictive. Tattooed people are comfortable in their skin. For me it was like pringles, once I popped, I couldn’t stop. I view my tattoos as my life story, I do them for me and I’m going to keep doing them. You should too, the tattoo chair can be more healing than the therapist’s couch. Go talk to a tattoo artist and ink your story. Start tattoo therapy today and let me know how it goes.

My Home Tattoo Shop in Iowa:


Check out Veteran Ink on IG for inspiration:


Sign Up for My Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest resources for Student Veterans, stay in the loop about upcoming trainings and books, and get connected for success.

Scroll to Top