One Person’s Punctuation Mark is Another's Symbol for Survival

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Photo courtesy of Chloe Volz.

As tattoos are becoming more popular and acceptable in public settings, people who have struggled with overcoming traumatic events, anxiety or depression are inking their skin as a coping mechanism for their mental health.

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Some are choosing to get unique images, quotes and phrases tattooed on them. However, symbols such as a semicolon are increasing in popularity, developing into a universal symbol of mental health tattoos.

The semicolon tattoo was started by Project Semicolon, a nonprofit that began in 2013 for those struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self injury.

The semicolon is the chosen symbol because it is a punctuation mark used in place of a period, where an author could have chosen to end his or her sentence but decided to create a pause instead. A person struggling with a severe mental illness, one difficult enough to cause them to consider committing suicide, might be able to relate to the meaningful mark, after ultimately choosing to live.

However, it does not have one single meaning. Others interpret the symbol differently to better suit their connection with the grammatical pause.

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Photo courtesy of Jada Esters.

Jada Esters, a student at Cal State Long Beach (CSULB), has embraced this trend after seeing it featured on Tumblr, a blogging and social networking site. She incorporated the semicolon in her third tattoo, after the words, “The End”, which is written on her wrist.

“I read a lot of books, and the one thing that I always hated seeing at the end of a book or series is when authors would just write, ‘The end – period,’” she said. “It’s done. It’s over. And I really think that’s what happens when you end your life. That’s it. You don’t get another shot.”

Esters said the physical process of getting tattooed is painful, yet therapeutic. She recalled previously having issues with self harm to cope with her stress when she was in high school. Getting a tattoo as an alternative method comforted her because she still wanted to experience that pain without feeling ashamed about the result of scars.

Esters chose the placement of the tattoo on her wrist, so she could see it everyday, she said. However, placement of the semicolon tattoo is crucial because there is sometimes a heavy subject behind it.

“Other people see it, and you connect,” said Chloe Volz, who is also a student at CSULB. “But if it’s something you don’t want to explain every time, maybe put it somewhere more private. If someone sees a semicolon, or especially with the semicolon, people may reach out to you and ask you things that maybe you’re not prepared to talk to a stranger about.”

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Photo courtesy of Chloe Volz of Volz (right) and her best friend Madeline Foss.

Volz was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when she was a teenager. She got her first tattoo more than a year ago, and she also believes it aids her mental health. On her left arm, there’s a vintage teacup with a banner underneath that says, “And still the world pursues,” a quote from T.S. Elliot’s novel, The Wasteland.

Volz wanted the placement of the design to be private enough to hide in a professional setting, but public enough for her to see everyday and for other people to see when she wants to show it off, she said. She described seeing the tattoo as a “warm feeling, similar to a hug.”

Tom Moser, a tattoo artist at Port City Tattoo in Long Beach, agreed that having a tattoo and going through the process of getting a tattoo can be therapeutic. He often converses with his customers about the tattoos’ meanings during their sessions.

Like most tattoo artists, Moser is inked all over his body. However, two sets of initials stand out. “DTLFG,” which stands for “Don’t take life for granted” and “LTD,” which stands for “Live the dream,” are written on the top of his wrists.

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Photo by Ariana Gastelum of tatoos on Tom Moser of Port City Tattoo.

“It’s down on my hands, so I can see it everyday,” he told the Post. “When I am getting a little down on myself, or whatever, I can look at these, and it will ground me.”

In addition to placement, it is also important to consider using a positive subject matter for a mental health-related tattoo, Volz advised.

Last May, Volz underwent a traumatic event where her family’s house burned down, and she lost the majority of her sentimental belongings. She considered getting a tattoo to commemorate the event of an illustration of a carcass of a house with smoke billowing over it, taken from the first book of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

“I’m so glad I sat on it because, a couple months later, I realized it’s a really negative aspect of that event,” she said. “Positive things have come out of that event. I’m a stronger person. I’m a more resilient person. But that is just going to remind me of the negative.”

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Photo courtesy of Chloe Volz.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 40-million adults, which constitutes 18 percent of the country, are affected.

Karen Kim, who has been a counselor at Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo High School for 14 years, also sees the benefits of getting tattoos when it comes to positive self-expression.

“Think of all that goes into it,” Kim said. “There’s such an artistic energy that goes into thinking about how you want it, what you want, colors, where you want it, and then having that be a permanent part of what’s on you, of course.”

She said that she has always encouraged her students to find different ways to express themselves. Every once in awhile, they mention to her that they are considering getting a tattoo.

“The kids will do writing and drawing and music and all these different forms of art and expression,” she said. “And sometimes they will bring up a tattoo [...] As a counselor, in regards to mental health, any positive way you’re expressing yourself, and in a healthy way, bring it on.”



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