Tattoos that heal: How this artist is transforming the scars of self-harm

·3 min read
Laura Casey, owner of Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos in St. John's started the Two Arrows project to help survivors of self-harm.  (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Laura Casey, owner of Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos in St. John's started the Two Arrows project to help survivors of self-harm. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

Bill Barnes' struggle with self-harm began around age 11 or 12.

"Initially, for me, it was a way to just kind of instantly come out of my brain," he said.

As an adult, Barnes has for years considered covering the scars he bears from self-harm.

He just wasn't quite sure how to go about it.

Now, as a client of the St. John's-based Two Arrows project, he's had the scars on his arm covered with a tattoo. These days, Barnes can roll up his sleeve and reveal a crow perched on the thorns of a rose.

Laura Casey, a tattoo artist who runs Lady Lo's Custom Tattoos in St. John's, began Two Arrows to help survivors of self-harm.

She said the goal is simple. "It's tattoos for healing," she said.

"Self-harm in a lot of forms is a lot more common than people think," she said. "I think with, you know, the cutting, it's a level of distress—it's a level of mental distress that is kind of taking a physical form."

Casey offers free consultation and tattooing services to Two Arrows clients. She currently devotes one day a month to the program as a volunteer, and typically helps one to three people every month.

WATCH | Bill Barnes and Laura Casey describe the impact of the Two Arrows program:

Casey said demand is high, though, so she's started a pay-it-forward program. All donations from the program expand Casey's capacity to serve Two Arrows clients free of charge.

The name of the project is rooted in the Buddhist parable of the two arrows, or Sallatha Sutta, which illuminates the nature of suffering. According to the parable, the first arrow symbolizes an unavoidably difficult life event—such as illness, death or the end of a relationship—while the second arrow represents negative emotions that may arise in response to these events, such as shame, anger and self-criticism.

Mark Cumby / CBC
Mark Cumby / CBC

The parable teaches that while the first arrow is likely inevitable, the second arrow can be a choice. Instead of shooting the second arrow of self-judgment and deepening the first arrow's wound, the parable offers an alternate path toward healing and self-compassion.

Conversations and connections

It's this healing path that inspired Casey's project. And for Casey, there's hope in reclaiming power from the potential shame surrounding self-harm.

"It needs to become a conversation when we make connections with other people. When we can, you know, be honest about the things that potentially have caused us the most shame and struggle—bring that out and take that bit of power away from it. I think there's a lot of good in that," she said.

Mark Cumby / CBC
Mark Cumby / CBC

Before receiving his tattoo, Barnes said his scars were always on his mind while interacting with everybody. He feared that people were thinking about his scars or that they would ask questions.

"Now that's not there anymore," he said. "So it's been a huge step in my process."

And though covering his arm has helped him find peace and healing, Barnes doesn't feel his tattoo has erased his scars.

"You know, my scars are a part of me," he said.

"In a way I kind of see them as battle scars because this was like a particularly bad time that I managed to get through. … I guess it's not really in a way to cover them up, but kind of incorporating them into a beautiful piece of art."

Where to get help:

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

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