Tattoos After an SCI

Posted by Zack Collie in Life After Paralysis on June 14, 2022 # Lifestyle

I was 18 years old when I got my first tattoo. I had already been paralyzed for a few years by then. I can’t remember the first time I thought about getting a tattoo. I never planned on getting one, and it wasn’t until after my accident that I felt like I could get one that was meaningful to me. Of course, I wanted to get one that represented my injury and story. I went to a bunch of different tattoo artists and had them draw sketches of my idea. After going through many artists and being disappointed with what they drew, I finally found the guy I wanted to tattoo me.

I was really nervous about getting my first one. I had no idea what the pain was going to be like and how my body would react to the needles. I would consider myself to have high pain tolerance, but my biggest concern was how bad my body was going to spasm. After my injury, I dealt with crazy body spasms that were so intense that for me to sleep at night, I had to tie my legs down with motorcycle tie-downs to keep them from kicking up. How would my body react to a tattoo when it would freak out and spasm whenever it wanted? Another concern of mine was if my body would go into autonomic dysreflexia (AD) because of the pain. Many people with SCI’s have little to no feeling, and if they are experiencing pain or something is wrong with their body, it will tell them by causing AD.

Thankfully for me, I have really good feelings throughout my body and can usually tell if something is wrong. I decided to go big for my very first tattoo. I wanted it to cover up the entire left peck on my body. When I got to the tattoo shop, I transferred onto a table and laid flat on my back. I wore a condom cath leg bag because I would be there for so long. I had to connect my night bag and hang it down one of the sides of the table. Then I had to have my legs tied down so I wouldn’t jump off the table. In my experience, tattoo shops are always pretty cold, and when I get cold, my body gets stiff, and I spasm more.

When it was time to tattoo, my artist said he was going to do a test so I could see how it would feel and how my body would react. In my opinion, the pain of the needle wasn’t as bad as I thought, but my body was twitching a lot. In other words, the pain wasn’t horrible, but my body was reacting. I had an awesome artist who worked with me. He would hold my body down while he was tattooing. If I felt a spasm coming, I would let him know beforehand so he could stop. I would let out the spasm, and he would keep going. I was so worried that my spasms would mess up the tattoo and prevent it from looking good, but that was not the case.

My artist absolutely killed it. The entire tattoo took about 8 hours, and I did it all in one sitting. Tattoos get a lot more painful after a few hours when your skin starts to get raw and red, but I wanted to test myself and push through. I know everyone’s body is different and will have their own reaction. I am only speaking for myself and my personal experience. I did not get any AD, and my biggest struggle was controlling my spasms. Other than that, it is completely possible to get a tattoo post-injury.

Since my first one back in 2013, I have gotten a bunch more and still had no major issues. Just make sure you do your research and communicate with your artist about any concerns you have. The right artist will accommodate and work with you.

Zack Collie is living with quadriplegia and was paralyzed in 2010 diving under a wave at Newport Beach breaking his C-4 vertebrae. Zack started a YouTube channel to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries and his life living as one. His mother, Amber Collie, is also a regular blogger for the Reeve Foundation.

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