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Healing through therapy — and tattoos

USC psychologist served as therapist on Ink Shrinks, a reality show that helps troubled clients heal and find closure

The pain of getting a tattoo allows a person to be more open to therapy, according to the show's premise. (Photo/Paul Belmore)

Joey hates needles — and not just a little bit. He has a diagnosed phobia and hasn’t been to a doctor in 15 years, which is an issue when you have a family history of medical problems.

So what might a therapist recommend for Joey to overcome his fear? How about getting a tattoo?

That’s exactly the approach Gabe Crenshaw, an adjunct lecturer at the USC School of Social Work, took as part of the reality show Ink Shrinks.

The Spike network show’s premise is based on the idea that the body releases endorphins to combat the pain of getting a tattoo, allowing those undergoing the procedure to be more open to therapy.

After having a session with the client, the therapists — both on the show are professional psychologists — and the tattoo artists work together to “prescribe” a tattoo designed to help their clients heal by serving as everyday reminders of how far they’ve come. The catch is the ones being tattooed aren’t allowed to see the pieces of art until they’re finished and permanent.

Needles and dates

The pilot episode, which aired in December, featured clients with various issues: Joey with his needle phobia, Anthony, who has trouble putting the past behind him, and Keya, a control freak quick to judge those she dates.

Tattoos have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.

Gabe Crenshaw

“This was a new concept for me when the producers approached me to do the show. I had never really thought about prescribing a tattoo for therapy,” said Crenshaw, who holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. “But tattoos have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. People find closure, a new beginning, a paradigm shift and want to memorialize that on their bodies. We hope the tattoo therapy excites brain structures and creates new neuronal pathways in the brain.”

A tough row to hoe

Sometimes those seeking help aren’t sure about their new ink. In the first episode, Keya isn’t immediately thrilled with her tattoo. But after having its symbolism explained to her by her therapist and tattoo artist, she quickly comes around.

Some clients almost don’t make it that far. At one point, Crenshaw’s client, Joey, bolts from the tattoo artist’s chair.

At the end of the day, the choice is always with the person. A good therapist wouldn’t push.

Gabe Crenshaw

“He went into fight-or-flight response. I had to get him back in the parasympathetic environment [i.e., calm him down] through self-reflection and reality testing. You have them question their own intrapsychic world to see if the strength is there or not,” Crenshaw said. “Joey put Joey back in the chair, not Dr. Gabe or Justin the tattoo artist. At the end of the day, the choice is always with the person. We’re proud of that. A good therapist wouldn’t push.”

Getting real

For the tattoo artists, dealing with people with unresolved issues isn’t necessarily a new concept.

“Clients come in, sit with us, tell us their problems and we’re able to give a spin on it that will help them or give some advice or a sympathetic ear,” tattoo artist Sarah Miller told Inked magazine. “When I was approached by this idea to audition for Ink Shrinks, I didn’t think it was that far of a transition from actual tattooing. I thought it would be really interesting to showcase a more positive and amazing side to tattooing because it is healing people who have problems; it really helps them.”

Crenshaw emphasized that he would only agree to be part of the show if all necessary precautions were taken. He said the producers consulted the American Psychological Association often to ensure they were being ethical, and they performed an extensive search for clients through months of interviews to make sure they didn’t have any extensive psychological problems that could be exacerbated by cameras.

We insisted that it had to be for real. There’s no fake drama.

Gabe Crenshaw

“We insisted that it had to be for real. There’s no fake drama — what you see is what really happened,” Crenshaw said. “You could see the discomfort without it being over-dramatized. I take my profession very seriously, so everything had to be in line. When the cameras went on, the producers just let us do what we do. They were receptive to the tattoo therapeutic process.”

A word of caution

Though Crenshaw fully supports the show’s premise, he is quick to warn against considering tattoo therapy as a cure-all.

The show is advice-giving and entertainment. It’s not one size fits all.

Gabe Crenshaw

“The show is advice-giving and entertainment. If you’re considering tattoo therapy for yourself, you should consult with your physician or therapist,” he said. “It’s not one size fits all.”

But the process has seemed to help Joey. After the pilot aired, he went to the doctor for the first time in more than a decade and got a vaccine shot. Not only did he do that, Joey was also able to accompany his ailing mother throughout hospital treatment.

“I’m still in touch with all of them after filming,” Crenshaw said. “Joey called and told me about his mother’s condition and said he credited Ink Shrinks with getting him through her time in the hospital. The tattoo reminded him that he could do it.”

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Healing through therapy — and tattoos

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