Tattoos are powerful symbols that, for many people, carry great depth of personal meaning – so much so that some tattoo aficionados view their bodies as a canvas on which to display art that they feel represents who they are. But even for those who don’t take it quite that far, tattoos can still be used to epitomize an important person, life event or message. And for many in recovery from addiction, tattoos related to their sobriety are both celebratory of their new life choices and prudent reminders of their past.
Singer and mental health advocate Demi Lovato is an example of just that. The openly recovering star got a tattoo of the word “free” on her right pinky finger just four days after she admitted that she had relapsed, which she announced with her new single “Sober”. The song grapples with the guilt and disappointment she felt as someone who carries the weight of obligation to both her family and her fans: “Mama, I’m so sorry I’m not sober anymore/ And daddy please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor,” she croons. “And I’m sorry for the fans I lost who watched me fall again/ I wanna be a role model, but I’m only human.” Lovato’s team all got the same tattoos as a show of their free, unified spirit. Said her hairstylist, César Ramirêz, “Love is accepting someone for who they are and for who they are not!”

Each Sobriety Tattoo Has Its Own, Unique Meaning

Sobriety tattoos hold different meanings for different people: They can be a symbol of your ability to overcome your troubled past, an ever-present reminder not to slip back into your old ways, or both. They provide a visual cue that might serve as a stronger aide-mémoire than simply carrying what you’ve learned in recovery around in the recesses of your mind. And just like sobriety itself, they represent a commitment to something that will last for the rest of your life.
One person describes their decision to get an AA tattoo this way: “I decided to imprint the AA symbol on my index finger because it’s my first finger and I wanted to always remind myself that sobriety was my first priority in life. I got the tat exactly when I had two years sober. When I first stopped using, I got a ‘First Things First’ bumper sticker for my car, so I guess you could say that was a test run for the tattoo.”
These adornments can symbolize not only the darkness of your past, but the brightness of your future: “I got my first recovery tattoo on my 40th birthday. I was a little over two months sober. It is a Tree of Life to represent my new life and my new focus on my emotional and spiritual growth,” says another woman of her ink. The process of getting a tattoo is, in a way, emblematic of the treatment process – the pain is temporary, but the rewards are everlasting.

Should You Get a Tattoo in Early Recovery?

Before you go walking into your local tattoo parlor, it’s worth taking some time to weigh the pros and cons of this long-lasting decision. Though tattoos themselves are losing their stigma and can be found on people from virtually any age group or walk of life, recovery is unfortunately still largely stigmatized. Having a visible and recognizably sobriety-related tattoo could turn out to be a talking point for a lot of conversations you don’t necessarily want to have – especially in the workplace, depending on your field.
Another consideration is what happens if you relapse. Will you then see your tattoo as a symbol of failure? If so, it could actually serve to increase your guilt – which, by the way, is a major driver of addiction. Consider this seriously before you take the plunge.
Many people find themselves wanting tattoos in early sobriety, but there are a few potential drawbacks to this. Firstly, tattoos aren’t cheap. If your funds have been compromised by addiction, it may be wise to wait until your financial house is in order before investing in something ornamental. Because skin art is permanent, this is not an area where you should skimp on quality – you don’t want to end up with something you regret because you went the budget route.
Remember, impulsivity is a hallmark of addiction – exactly the kind of behavior you’re in recovery to learn to control. Have some patience, foresight and planning. Take your time and make sure you really want what you’re getting; make sure you have the budget for quality work and that getting this piece isn’t disruptive to your financial planning.

Getting a Sobriety Tattoo? Some Things to Keep in Mind:

If you’re thinking about getting a recovery-related tattoo, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you want it to be visible? Is it important to you to be able to easily cover it up?
  • Are you okay with discussing your recovery if someone has questions about the meaning of your tattoo
  • Do you want it to be an identifiable symbol of recovery, like the serenity prayer, AA triangle or a 12-Step motto?
  • Do you want it to be a larger piece that you add to over time?
  • Or, do you want it to be a small, understated piece that’s a little reminder to yourself?

Other factors to consider:

  • Don’t rush when choosing the design – this image and/or text will be on your body for the rest of your life.
  • Research images you want and look at existing tattoos for ideas.
  • Select your tattoo artist carefully and ask for their feedback and creative input on your design.
  • Think about how this tattoo will affect your work life and employment prospects.
  • Choose a design you can be proud of.
  • Think about what placement you want.
  • Consider your pain tolerance – different parts of the body are more painful to get tattooed than others.
  • Tattoos require you to properly clean them, shield them from the sun and refrain from swimming while they’re healing. Do your timing and circumstances allow for adequate aftercare?

Your path to recovery is unique to you, and so is your tattoo. The choice is yours, but make sure to take your time and carefully weigh all your options before making this important decision.
If you’re feeling shaky in your sobriety and need a boost of extra treatment or support, Broadway Treatment Center can connect you with resources and help you explore your options. Contact us online or call us at 714-443-8218 today.