Tattoos and Physical Therapy: A View on Body Art in the Healthcare Setting

Carlo Saul, Class of 2023

In today’s world, tattoos are more common than ever but there is a lingering sense of taboo around tattooed individuals in physical therapy and the healthcare field in general. As a professional, one is expected to look a certain, clean type of way. This stereotype does not include tattoos as they are still associated with lawlessness and impurity. Growing up, I also viewed tattoos in this light, but this all changed as I went through my undergraduate years.

Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of being a healthcare professional. My science background is ingrained with a dichotomous mindset of right and wrong, whether it was through multiple choice exams, lab skills, or clinical practice guidelines. As my undergraduate career ended, I felt trapped in a box based on objectivity. This is when I found comfort in the subjective nature of the art of tattooing. In the tattoo world, there are endless possibilities as there are countless styles, placements, subjects, and color palettes that one can choose from.

As I pondered in my academic box, I reflected on the way I viewed myself. I grew up with an intrinsic shame of my body weight. I never viewed myself as attractive or appealing to others. This is a dynamic mindset that is rooted in my socioeconomic status, single parent household, health illiteracy, and lack of consistent exercise and healthy eating. After graduating from undergrad at the age of 22, I decided to take control. I was unemployed as I was looking for a physical therapy tech position, so out of boredom, I joined a local gym. My weight started dropping and I started to feel stronger, more energetic, and started to take pride in my progress. There was this new sense of confidence as I saw the scales go down and weights get heavier. This was the first time I felt genuine control of my body.

This newfound control expanded to self-expression through tattoos. It started off with memorial tattoos to honor loved ones who had passed away. It then progressed to telling my personal story whether it was nods to my Filipino-American culture, NBA basketball, or even just appreciation for the work of tattoo artists that I love. The beauty of tattoos is that there is no one right way of getting them. Whether it is a collection of different styles, a small hidden tattoo, or entire body suit, one has freedom to express themselves. This does not mean everyone needs a tattoo as that freedom of expression is aligned with choosing to not get tattooed as well.

When applying to physical therapy schools, only one website had pictures of students or faculty with tattoos. As a tattooed individual, minority, and three years out of school, I felt stress, anxiety, and loneliness. In my applications, I did not mention tattoos and kept my sleeves rolled down during interviews. Two years later and in my second year as a Doctor of Physical Therapy Student of Regis University, I could not feel any more differently as over 49% of my current cohort have tattoos. My classmates and faculty have never made me feel self-conscious, ashamed, or any lesser because of my tattoos. I share a sense of storytelling, individualism, and pride with my tattooed peers.

The sense of autonomy and control that I feel with my tattooed body draws parallels to the patient experience in physical therapy. A part of being tattooed is sharing a piece of myself without words, thus being vulnerable to others. Vulnerability and acceptance are two key components of a proficient physical therapist-patient experience. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter style treatments, as plans of care are individualized to the specifics of each patient. This means granting patient autonomy and influence on their care, just as I have through the ink on my skin.

Tattoos are not a mark of knowledge or proficiency as a health care provider. Judge me on my character. Judge me on my clinical reasoning. Judge me on my critical thinking. Judge me on my bedside manner, my professionalism, my empathy, my commitment to learning, on my sincerity. Do not judge that my body is colored outside the lines. I vow to accept my patients as the individuals they are. Hopefully they can do the same and view my tattoos as an expression of my personal story, not a mark of wickedness. Just like physical therapy, tattoo collecting is a lifelong learning process. May the ink on my skin be as strong as the ink on my Doctor of Physical Therapy diploma.

May the ink on my skin be as strong as the ink on my Doctor of Physical Therapy diploma.

– Carlo Saul

Thank you to everyone from the Class of 2023 who shared a little bit of themselves for this.

2 thoughts on “Tattoos and Physical Therapy: A View on Body Art in the Healthcare Setting

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this!!! It’s very meaningful, especially as we are pushing for much needed diversification of our profession (and by extension our DPT programs). I am sharing this with my faculty colleagues.

  2. Just stumbled upon this page. Wonderful story and well written! PT here since 2014. I went through those similar early PT school struggles (I have a 3/4 sleeve plus a chest piece). However, day 1 was clinical skills shoulder girdle so it was shirts off and away we go! You’re 100% correct, there’s more diversity than most would assume, good and bad. Looking young and being fresh out of school, I worked harder to be extra professional in appearance and action. Like it or not, first impressions matter. I worked in an affluent, predominantly conservative Caucasian area, outpatient ortho. It wasn’t pretentious, but it was laborious to gain rapport with patients, referring physicians, parents, etc. Working in inpatient, it’s no biggie due to the gloves/gowns/white coats, and the fact that so many have tattoos. I’ve had the pleasure of changing people’s perspectives, but i’ve also been the subject of change of provider and criticism. Honestly, it’s assumed risk at this time based on what setting, location, demographics. But I believe most patients just want to improve in their condition, and if you are professional, effective, and empathetic, they won’t mind about some ink. Grind hard and congrats on your upcoming completion!!

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