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God, tattoos and empathy: The art of healing from trauma

Hundreds of people from around the world find their way to David Allen's tattoo studio every year, especially those who are counting on Allen to help them feel whole.

A group hugs at David Allen's tattoo studio in Chicago. Photo courtesy of David Allen

(Interfaith America) — It’s not always easy to find David Allen’s tattoo studio, which is tucked away inside a century-old loft building in the East Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Even Google often sends people to the wrong address.

But despite the detours, hundreds of people from around the world find their way to Allen every year, from anonymous first-timers to Lady Gaga, but perhaps especially those who are counting on Allen to help them feel whole.

Over the last decade, Allen has become famous for his tattoos for cancer patients and survivors, especially those who have undergone a mastectomy. They come to Allen for his delicate floral tattoos that mark their surgery scars, helping them embrace their changed bodies.

The Journal of the American Medical Association calls his work, which has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “the intersection of art and science.” His clients say Allen’s combination of empathy and touch is healing.

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The process is intimate, painful, vulnerable. The first time Allen worked on a mastectomy tattoo, in 2010, he had to take several breaks to stop crying.

Allen’s empathy stems in part from his upbringing in a Christian environment, he said in a recent interview, as well as his own recovery from traumatic experiences as a teenager. After losing his father at a young age, he was bullied for his mixed-race appearance, and then in 1999, a few months before leaving for college, his girlfriend was killed by her ex-boyfriend in a murder-suicide.

The pastors at his church took him under their wing, he recalled. “I was a boy with no safe male influence in my life, and I didn’t grow up around healthy relationships. I was scared of men. So, to have these safe men in my life meant a lot to me. They and years of therapy taught me to look inward and face who I was, and that changed everything. I learned to put myself in other people’s situations and it was a whole new world that opened up to me.”

A client of David Allen views her new tattoo at his studio in Chicago in 2019. Photo courtesy of David Allen

A client of David Allen views her new tattoo at his studio in Chicago in 2019. Photo courtesy of David Allen

Allen has witnessed emotions across the spectrum from his clients — joy and laughter, nervousness, skepticism and grief — like the couple who came to get matching tattoos to cope with their miscarriage. They chose plus signs to remind them of the joy they felt when their pregnancy test came back positive.

When they weep, Allen weeps. When they vent, he carefully listens. Sometimes, but rarely, he gives them advice. Mostly he tries to be present, while giving them space to process their emotions alone, or with their loved ones near them.

“That’s where I see God,” Allen says. “In the beauty of human interactions.” 

In conversation with Interfaith America staff writer Silma Suba, Allen talked about his journey from being afraid of vulnerability to creating safe spaces for his clients to be vulnerable and begin to heal.

How did you get into tattooing?

I love being a father of two kids — a 6-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. That’s my heart. I got into tattooing because I love to draw, but I also got into it because I wanted to be able to make my own schedule to be with them and be more present.

You double majored in fine arts, graphic design and religion. What piqued your interest in religion?

Tattoo artist David Allen. Photo courtesy of David Allen

Tattoo artist David Allen. Photo courtesy of David Allen

I grew up in a Protestant Church of the Nazarene. My dad died when I was 5, and with the money from his Social Security my mom decided to put me into a private school. We were poor, so it was me and a bunch of rich kids. I had this lovely education, but it was all so different. My friends and I (attended) different churches and sometimes more conservative churches, so I’ve experienced all of that.

I love the message of acceptance and love but didn’t like the shame and guilt some people can use to control others. So, I thought being a religion major would teach me the context behind diverse religions. Because I saw something good in there — and some bad too, and I wanted to learn more.

Does faith play a role in your life now?

Yeah, it does, but it’s always shifting these days. I’m open to more now. I’ve heard from other people and other religions (and) it’s opened me up to the idea that I truly don’t know everything about faith. I do have faith and believe in a creator or a higher consciousness. I feel like there’s a purpose for our lives, whether it extends or ends when we die.

I also lost a lot of people that I’ve loved. And when people die in your life, especially when you’re young, it’s easy to cling to an afterlife because it helps you cope. I know faith is bigger than that.

I also know how divisive the rhetoric can be from different religions, and I hate that, because that’s not the message of Christ or God. Those messages come from a place of fear and ignorance. Sometimes those views can feel so pointed, like a punch. I’ve learned it’s important to absorb those punches, not react to them, but acknowledge them and say, “Hey, I hear you.” Everybody wants to feel heard.

How does faith show up in your interactions with your clients?

A lot of my clients have cancer and are metastatic, which means they could die in two years, 10 years or three months. They are staring at death daily. And there are so many conversations that I have with them, and God, they’re beautiful.

What’s beautiful to me is how these people want to talk less about themselves and more about how they want to embrace the people and the community around them. It’s powerful. Having these healthy conversations around religion, like: What do you think about the afterlife? How does your faith help you cope with your suffering and your loss? If these questions are met with openness and love, there can be a lot of healing in those conversations.

A group of women surround tattoo client, right, at David Allen's studio in Chicago. Photo courtesy of David Allen

A group of women surround a tattoo recipient, right, at David Allen’s studio in Chicago. Photo courtesy of David Allen

I have seen them happen so many times in my studio — parents and children talking about things they didn’t talk about before. I am not a therapist, and it’s not my job to interject with conversations on faith, but often I ask them a leading question and see how that helps them.

There are clients who talk to me about their journey with cancer, and they will turn to their partners and say, “I didn’t know you felt that way too.” And their partner will say, “I didn’t want to add to your stress. You are already going through so much.”

You’ve faced so much trauma of your own. How has that helped you to have these vulnerable conversations?

I was in a really dark place for so long, I thought it was going to consume me. When I was finally facing the profound sense of grief and loss, I found in myself the tools to see it in other people. I understand grief. I understand pain. I understand loss. I understand the fear of abandonment.

Creating and being an artist feels like being a conduit to God and the universe. When I am creating, I feel God’s pleasure. It took me years to figure this out, but listening to people, making them feel heard, that their needs are being met, that’s exactly what I needed as a child, and didn’t get. It’s not a coincidence that I am giving people the things that I’ve always needed myself. There’s healing in that.

This story was published in partnership with Interfaith America, a website of Interfaith Youth Core.

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