Semicolon tattoo opens mental illness conversations

By: 
Carol Ryczek with the Laramie Boomerang, Via the Wyoming News Exchange

LARAMIE — Dominic Blake’s first tattoo was a small black semicolon tucked behind his right ear. It is not only OK to ask about it, he hopes everyone will. 

A semicolon tattoo is a message about mental health and suicide prevention. It started in 2013 when Project Semicolon was launched as a way to encourage discussion about depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. 

The message of Project Semicolon (projectsemicolon.com) is “your story isn’t over.” “The project, and its ‘;’ symbol, have become very well-known over the past few years,” Blake said. “I got this in 2014, before I knew about the project. My boss had one. He got it for mental health.

“It’s a semicolon because it is something that someone would use when they could have ended the sentence but chose not to.” 

In written English, a semicolon separates two parts of a sentence that could each stand on its own; it indicates a stop but not a full stop. 

Blake said he wanted to call attention to issues such as anxiety and depression and reduce social stigma about mental illness. 

He talked about his small semicolon while waiting for an appointment at Vintage Electric Tattoo in Laramie. 

The shop’s owner, Chad Elsasser, said the semicolon is becoming a regular tattoo request. 

“They are placed in a different area and for a variety of reasons,” Elsasser said. “Maybe they’ve lost somebody or they were going through it. It’s a reminder — wherever their heart goes.” 

There are a “thousand different directions” on the style of the tattoo, Elsasser said. Some, like Blake’s, are plain. Others have names, dates or other decorations added. 

While a universal symbol, how it’s done is personal, he said. 

“It’s more about the meaning than the tattoo,” he said.

For some, getting the tattoo is a way to put something at rest; it allows them to move on, but they keep a reminder of a friend or how a suicide or attempt impacted their lives, he said. Because it lasts, Elsasser said the tattoo never diminishes or takes away the power of what his clients are doing. 

For Blake, the symbol speaks to a broad range of mental health issues. He said speaking about mental illness can be very difficult for many people. 

“I used to be a bartender. People would see (the tattoo) and ask about it,” Blake said. “Mental health has such a stigma. It opens up a conversation about it.” 

Blake now works as a firefighter in Cheyenne. 

“People don’t want to talk about it, but it’s important to normalize it. to de-stigmatize it,” he said about issues of suicide and mental health. 

Elsasser said when clients get their semicolon tattoos, some will choose to explain their decisions. There is no pressure for an explanation, he said; his studio is a safe space. 

Blake said the concept of safe space is what he hopes he communicates with the semicolon, that space is not just within four walls, but within conversation. 

The semicolon, he said, means he offers a safe space to talk.

 

 

This story was published on August 13, 2022.

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