Tattoo Addiction vs Gambling Addiction

Problem gambling is a well-known addiction, with several large organizations in place to help people overcome it. But how do its effects compare with an addiction like tattoos? It turns out there’s a lot of similarities between gambling addiction and an addiction to body art. We spoke to several specialists in the field of addiction treatment to find out why.

Someone gambling at the blackjack table
Image Credit:

What Are the Key Psychological Differences Between Tattoo and Gambling Addictions?

No matter what type of addiction an individual is suffering from, their brain is impacted in a similar way. Addiction can change the brain’s natural chemical balance, it can alter the brain’s communication patterns, and it can make changes to the brain’s structure and the way it functions. The type of addiction will affect how these changes occur, though.

If we dig a little deeper, and compare gambling addiction to a slightly less conventional dependency, like one to getting tattoos, how do they compare? Should they be considered one and the same, or are there stark differences?

Dr Nancy Irwin, LA-based Doctor of Psychology at Seasons in Malibu, stated “The former has more to do with the need to display an external sign(s) of how they want to be seen. This can be a quest for attention, or it could just come from a fear of not fitting in (it is a generational thing after all). The latter has more to do with feeling empty, like a loser, and needing to win.”

Aeden Smith-Ahearn, Treatment Co-Ordinator at Experience Addiction Treatment Center, similarly acknowledged there were differences, but said that both still essentially come down to a chemical satisfaction within the brain. “A difference could be between why somebody is doing it, say someone is getting tattoos to boost their ego, as opposed to someone trying to hit it big in Vegas in an attempt to get out of poverty.”

The adrenaline rush of getting tattoos

What Makes Tattoos So Addictive?

Comparing tattoos and gambling as addictions seems bizarre on the face of it. A gambling habit is perhaps seen as more destructive because of the negative repercussions it can have on an individual’s finances, relationships, and health. An addiction to tattoos is generally not seen as such a big problem.

To the average person that hasn’t been tempted by getting a tattoo, having a large percentage of your body inked can be hard to understand. So what is it about getting tattoos can make them so addictive?

Dr Irwin says “One gets positive reinforcement for them, and continues to get more and more. Or one gets negative reinforcement (parents’ disapproval, etc.), and negative attention is better than none for some people. They get to over-identify with a label: “I’m a bad ass”, “No one gets me”, “People are biased” etc.”

Erin Parisi, Licensed Mental Health Counsellor and Certified Addictions Professional in Orlando, agrees that it’s the chemical boost a person gets from being tattooed that can get them hooked. “The process of getting a tattoo serves as a distraction and/or an escape, and can provide pain, pleasure, relief, a method of self-expression, socialization, attention, and even personal identity.”

It could be argued that tattoo addiction comes from a more positive place than problem gambling. Someone might have a compulsion for tattoos might because they want to improve their self-confidence, cover a scar, or express themselves.

That said, some people come to regret their tattoos, as our article on the odds of regretting a tattoo further explores.

How addiction affects the brain

How Do Tattoo and Gambling Addictions Affect Relationships?

Is it realistic to compare tattoo and gambling addictions on how they affect a person’s relationships with others? Well, it could be argued that there’s very little separating spending $10,000 at the casino tables and blowing $10,000 on body tattoos.

The same goes for time spent participating in the addiction. Whether someone is spending 8 hours a day in a casino or 8 hours a day in a tattoo parlor, that’s 8 hours a day away from their friends and family.

This is even before we touch upon the emotional and physical consequences of the addictions, where people might suffer from lack of sleep, agitation, low self-esteem, depression, distance from loved ones, and so on.

Dr Irwin commented “[Tattoo and gambling addictions] can ruin relationships with spouse, children, siblings, bosses, and more. Addicts’ behaviors tend to affect at least 7 people. This irresponsibility is one of the major factors we work on in addictions therapy: learning to be responsible with your behavior knowing it affects others.”

Parisi said “Addiction has the potential to affect relationships in a huge way, typically leading to much conflict. Partners often say that the most damaging part of any addiction is the lying that inevitably accompanies it.”

She added “While any addiction wreaks havoc on relationships (financial problems, health problems, divorce/separation, abuse, guilt/shame, legal problems, involvement of child welfare services, job loss all have a ripple effect), it seems as though Gambling Disorder impacts intimate relationships more than other addictive disorders, leading to depression and suicide attempts by partners.”

The trends that occur from having an addiction

Can These Addictions Be Associated with Other Types of Addictions?

For the benefit of this comparison, tattoos were selected to go up against gambling. The concept was to take a leftfield type of addiction and see how it shapes up against a more common form of addiction.

The comparisons shouldn’t stop there. The experts we interviewed have already spoken about how the physical and mental aspects of tattoo and gambling addiction are very similar, and any type of addiction will trigger the same chemical reactions in the brain. So is someone addicted to gambling or getting tattoos more at risk of becoming addicted to something else?

Dr Irwin said “Yes. Cross addictions are very common: sex, smoking, drugs, alcohol, porn, etc.”

Parisi agreed, saying “Absolutely. Someone who is addicted to one thing is more likely to be addicted to other things.”

Addiction ultimately comes down to a process of gratification within the brain’s chemical system. The addiction could be anything. It’s not the physical act of the addiction that causes the addiction necessarily. It can be the chemical reaction caused by the addiction.

It is estimated that roughly up to 15% of citizens in the US have addictive personalities. A study by Dr Gabor Mate found that several factors can make an individual become more susceptible to addiction.

Enduring psychological or physical pain, biological and genetic factors, mental health issues, experiencing a traumatic event before the age of 16, and the timing of a person’s first encounter with drugs, alcohol or gambling can all contribute to them becoming addicted to something.

Gambling dice and casino chips
Image Credit:

What Role Does the Media Play in Addressing Addictions?

Living in an age where the media plays such an influential role in our everyday lives, its handling of addiction is bound to have an impact. Is addiction glamorized, or are the consequences realistically portrayed?

Dr Irwin was torn on how shows interpret addictions. She said “Actually many shows underscore the pain and loss of addictions. I frankly do not know many that glamorize them. Perhaps with tattoos…”

A number of films and TV shows have used types of addiction as their focal point, but have steered clear of highlighting the topics as an addiction. For example, gambling is often glamorized in the movies, with 21 (2008), The Hangover (2009), and Molly’s Game (2017) all focusing on the fun aspects. Even tattoos have become mainstream now, with Blindspot, Just Tattoo Of Us, and LA/London Ink proving popular.

Still, there is a difference between covering the issues generally, and specifically focusing on the addiction side of things. Does the media cover these issues responsibly and reflect concerns about addiction?

Someone with numerous tattoos getting another one done
Image Credit:

Smith-Ahearn thought portrayals are more likely to encourage people, “The media must play some role, at least through the role of advertising. Whether it be ads, billboard, sporting event, radio, TV, both industries spend lots of money to target a specific audience. I’m sure this works as a trigger just like it does alcohol and tobacco.”

Parisi said, “The media shapes the way people, especially children and teenagers, perceive and understand things like drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, gambling, tattoos, and many other things. It isn’t typically the full-grown adults (mid- to late-20s) that the media is having the biggest impact on. It’s younger people, who don’t have fully developed brains, and who don’t have the ability to fully understand the far-reaching (and sometimes permanent) consequences of their decisions.”

While addictions to tattoos and gambling might seem very different, their similarities are closer than we might be comfortable to admit. They are both addictions that have potentially devastating physical, mental, and emotional impacts on the addicts.

It still seems that there is a general feeling of apathy towards both addictions. There’s been no clear response from the tattoo or gambling industries, or from sectors like the media and advertising that use the industries for their own means. The sooner addictions are treated as one and the same, the better. Currently, this idea that some addictions are not as dangerous as others is allowing some dependencies to breed unchallenged and have a serious impact on peoples’ lives.