See How a Tattoo Artist Transforms Scars Into Works of Art

Brian Finn offers free ink to people who want a new start after self-harm.
(Photo: Brian Finn/Instagram)
Mar 12, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Gionni Ponce is Participant Media’s Assistant of Advocacy and Social Impact.

For many people, getting a tattoo is a fresh start. For those who have struggled with self-harm and domestic abuse, it’s an opportunity they cannot always afford. In those cases, Ohio tattoo artist Brian Finn donates his time and skills by giving free tattoos to people who have scars from a troubling past.

Finn’s goal is to help them reclaim their lives through visual transformation.

“I’ve always been the kind of person to just be good to other people. One day I realized I can easily do this with the tattooing I’m already doing,” Finn told TakePart.

Self-harm scars can be a constant reminder of past ills to those who have them and a visible flaw to others. Maddie Keating, one of the recipients of Finn’s tattoos, told NPR her scars were a reminder “of a really dark, hard time.” She wanted them to be less visible. The scars can be considered a “secondary battle” that self-harmers have to face when people make harsh comments about or stare at their scars.

Brian Finn repaired this Celtic knot after self-harm scars marred the design. (Photo: Brian Finn)

There are a variety of methods for covering them up. Some people do so with clothing and jewelry. Others use makeup, oils, and creams. In more extreme cases, skin abrasion or grafting can reduce the severity of the scars. Tattooing can transform them into something completely different. Keating told NPR, “It’s really nice to think that anybody that I meet will see something so beautiful and be able to appreciate it with me.”

Keating—who got a black-and-white rose tattoo—stands out in Finn’s mind. “She was really easygoing and knew exactly what she wanted,” he told TakePart.

Maddie Keating's was the first self-harm tattoo Finn offered for free. (Photo: Brian Finn)

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, self-harming is not a mental illness, but people who self-harm often have an associated mental illness, such as borderline personality disorder, depression, an eating disorder, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. These illnesses can make it difficult for self-harmers to make ends meet, which is why Finn has been offering his services for free since last September. Finn rents the space he uses at his tattoo studio, Infinite Art, and provides all the materials needed to do the work: ink, gloves, paper towels, and bandages.

It is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers of self-harmers, as the act is often performed in secret. Experts tend to agree that the highest rate of occurrence is among teens, who have difficulty coping with their feelings. According to a recent analysis, as many as 17.2 percent of adolescents may engage in self-harm through acts of cutting, burning, or taking life-threatening risks. Those who engage in self-harm are at increased risk of suicide as well. In recent years, reports from Australia and the United Kingdom have claimed a spike in numbers. According to the BBC, in 2014, hospital admissions from self-harm wounds for girls in the United Kingdom increased by almost 93 percent. Yet experts posit that the increase could also be from a greater awareness of the problem.

This is Finn’s first tattoo on a male self-harmer. (Photo: Brian Finn)

While statistics show that girls typically self-harm more than boys, many advocacy groups and experts believe the numbers are also reflective of a cultural stigma. Self-harm has largely been viewed as a female behavioral problem, which may push boys to “suffer in silence.”

Both tattooing and self-harming can have addictive qualities. The body releases endorphins in reaction to the injury. According to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, self-harming can cause an “increased sense of comfort or integration” for short periods of time.

(Photo: Brian Finn)

Since Finn first advertised his services in the Toledo City Paper, his story has been shared with people all around the world. He said, “I’ve gotten a lot of requests out of the U.K,. Alaska, all over the U.S. I even had somebody contact me asking where I tattoo in Australia, since the story was published there.” Subsequently, another tattoo artist, Whitney Develle, answered that call.

Though Finn lists his contact information on his Instagram account, he has had to put a halt on new appointments for now. He’s booked through June.