How Tattoo Artist Brian Finn Is Covering Up Pain With Art

Dec 29, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 12:25 pm

About a year ago, tattoo artist Brian Finn began offering free tattoos to people to cover their scars from trauma: domestic abuse, human trafficking, self-harm.

Since NPR last visited with Finn, he's received what he estimates to be thousands up thousands emails, and attracted so many new followers on Instagram that he had to turn off notifications. He learned that tattoo artists around the world — Brazil, Australia, the United Kingdom — had taken up his idea.

But the time since the story aired has been tough for Finn: His girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer — she's in remission now — and his brother was partially paralyzed in a boogie boarding accident.

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of our most shared stories from 2016 was about a tattoo artist in Toledo, Ohio, named Brian Finn. He had decided to spend his days off giving tattoos for free to people who wanted to cover up scars caused by trauma.

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BRIAN FINN: It involves a range from domestic violence, human trafficking, self-inflicted.

MADDIE KEATING: It's gorgeous.

SHAPIRO: Maddie Keating received one of Finn's free tattoos on her forearm. It's a large, ornate, black-and-white rose. It covered her scars from cutting.

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KEATING: And to think that I used to look at my arm and think, wow, that's so sad that I was so sad. And now I get to have this beautiful rose that Brian drew for me.

SHAPIRO: Hey, Brian. Good to see you again.

FINN: You, too. It's been a while.

SHAPIRO: It has been a while.

I recently went back to his tattoo studio to check in with Brian Finn. He had gotten a lot of attention after the story aired last February and a lot of requests. Finn had to turn off his Instagram notifications because of all the new followers. His inbox filled up with emails from around the world, lots of emails.

FINN: I would definitely say thousands upon thousands.

SHAPIRO: And he learned about other tattoo artists who had taken up his idea.

FINN: There's somebody - a lady in Brazil is doing the same thing. Somebody in Australia doing the same thing, in the U.K. doing the same thing.

SHAPIRO: So this has almost become, like, a tattoo artist trend now - to, in various places around the world, offer free tattoos to people who need to cover up scars.

FINN: Well, a positive trend I guess. Hopefully it doesn't kind of fade away, though. A lot of people sent me messages, though, just telling me, thank you; I think it's great what you're doing; I just want to say, you know, good job; keep doing it.

SHAPIRO: Is giving a person a tattoo in this scenario where you're covering up scars a more emotional, personal experience than all the other tattoos that you do?

FINN: It's definitely a darker situation. Everybody who tattoos professionally will definitely come across a lot of people with troubling pasts and situations and different meanings for their tattoo. But when I started doing this, it was kind of like a beacon to where I - majority of the people that contacted me were specifically for that reason - to cover up scars.

And a lot of people also did send me messages where it wasn't even limited to just self-harm, domestic violence and human trafficking. It went further where people were saying, I was in a car accident. You know, chemo - I have chemo scars. I have, you know - any kind of surgery. You know, I just was across the board. Any scar, regardless of what it was - it kind of took a toll because everybody sent me an email explaining what happened.

And the biggest thing is that people would send me pictures of their scars with every single one, so I saw a huge degree of scars that are completely healed up where the pinkish tone has faded away. And then majority of them were ones that were pretty recent to where it's really pink in complexion, and they can't be tattooed in that case. And the biggest question is, well, how long do I have to wait? And it depends on the person. Everybody heals up at different rates.

I think the biggest thing with that, which was helpful, was just spreading awareness that scars could be covered up with tattoos. What I'm doing isn't anything any other professional tattoo artist couldn't do.

SHAPIRO: Before I checked in with Brian, I had some sense of the impact his story had. What I didn't know was how hard the year had been for him personally. His girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer. She just finished treatment. And his brother was partially paralyzed in a boogie boarding accident. All of that meant he had to stop offering free tattoos on his days off and use the time to help care for his loved ones instead. So when I went back to meet up with him this month, I asked.

This may sound like an odd question, but you have given something to so many people who needed it. You've now had this really tough year. Is there something you need that people can give back to you?

FINN: I just wish people would just not feel so down about themselves basically. I'm a firm believer in not dwelling on the bad situation. Just to look how to get out of that bad situation and look to the positive side of it, so...

SHAPIRO: Well, Brian Finn, thank you for everything you do, and thank you for sharing it with us.

FINN: Not a problem at all. Any time.

SHAPIRO: That's Brian Finn, a tattoo artist in Toledo, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.