Odyssey Wellness Tattoo: The Healing Power of Ink

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday May 26, 2019

Darlene DiBona knows quite a bit about trauma, or at least how her tattoos can help women heal from it. The Brookline, Massachusetts, tattoo artist, who opened her studio, Odyssey Wellness Tattoo in 2016, has become well-known in the Boston area as someone who specializes in working with women recovering from a variety of physical and emotional injuries and issues. That includes mastectomies (one of DiBona's many skills is areola reconstruction tattooing). But for DiBona, wellness ink encompasses cosmetic tattooing, too.

In honor of National Women's Health Week, EDGE spoke to DiBona about how her art empowers women and celebrates survivorship.

Taking Back Their Bodies
It was a bit of a slow process, according to DiBona. Her client, a woman in her late 30s, was looking to cover extensive scarring on her upper back and shoulder, the result of being burned by boiling water when she was a toddler. One day DiBona spent an entire session with her, needles idle, as she tried unsuccessfully to choose a design.

"It can be so scary," DiBona says of her clients who have been physically injured, "because there's already so much trauma associated with that area of the body they don't want to experience more by having a tattoo on them that they're not sure that they love. So, it's important — they have to love it. Because that's how they're reclaiming the area. That's the medicine that's going to let them walk away from the experience feeling happy about that part of their body again. But it's a big process for me, too, because I'm the one who's holding the space for them."

In the end, the client chose a powerful and elegant design that included a magnolia flower and butterflies. Although tattooing scarred flesh can be difficult, with the ink sometimes unavoidably migrating from the lines DiBona creates, the work turned out exactly as envisioned. "When we started covering these scars, she cried with joy," Di Bona says. "I would say that's therapy. That's medicine."

Healing That's More Than Skin Deep
DiBona, who hails from the Boston area, studied sculpture at Ithaca College, but only found her true calling in 1999, when she started tattooing flesh rather than trying to recreate it out of clay. She gained valuable experience at the start of her career at Sacred Rose in San Francisco, followed by Skin Deep Tattoo in Maui, and Fat Ram's Pumpkin Tattooing in Boston. DiBona furthered her education at the John Hashey School for Cosmetic Tattooing in Oldsmar, Florida.

But even DiBona didn't foresee the diverse ways her art could help women. "Tattoo as wellness has a lot of applications," DiBona says. "It didn't occur to me until it started naturally happening, once it was out there and people were coming to me."

DiBona has covered self-harm scars with tattoos and inked ribbons commemorating hard-fought battles with cancer and other diseases, as well semicolons, a mark of support and solidarity in the fight against mental health issues like suicide, depression and addiction. In addition, she regularly works with women who are in recovery from sexual abuse. Sometimes they ask for a symbol; sometimes they want something much more literal.

"I worked with someone once who wanted the words 'wounded healer,' with a flower," Dibona says. "She was the most skittish about the physicality of getting a tattoo. She told me that she had a really hard time being touched. My response to her was, 'I know you know I can't do anything about touching you while I tattoo you, but I won't touch you without telling you I'm about to touch you.' Everybody understands that not only are they going to be touched, but they're also going to be penetrated, and that can be hard for some women. Communication is very important if someone has been physically or emotionally wounded. It's really important that they feel comfortable."

After a moment DiBona adds, "I've been doing this kind of work for almost 20 years because I feel it's one of the ways that people can reclaim an area of the body that's suffered trauma. It can make such a huge difference in someone's life."

For more information, visit odysseywellnesstattoo.com.

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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.

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