Under the Skin: Tattoos, Trauma, and Tackling Stigma on Black Ink Chicago

Left: Phor Brumfield, Right: Ryan Henry of ‘Black Ink Chicago’ get vulnerable around mental health and trauma in the show’s sixth season.
Left: Phor Brumfield, Right: Ryan Henry of ‘Black Ink Chicago’ get vulnerable around mental health and trauma in the show’s sixth season.
Photo: Courtesy VH1

Much has been finally been made and explored in terms of this notion of trauma—what it is, who experiences it most, what its effects are. But the scary part about trauma is that if it happens too often; too frequently, it can start to feel normal, which can be dangerous. Your body’s fight-or-flight response, triggered one too many times, shuts down or goes into overdrive and one becomes numb to all the wounds until one spills over and poisons the body and mind.

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Forty-five percent of young black men in Chicago between the ages of 20-24 don’t have jobs and are not in school, a definitive link to the violence that has taken so many of them on to glory. The chance that a young black man in Chicago will be killed by a firearm is 50 times the national rate. And if he does live past his teens or young adulthood, his life span will be 30 years shorter than a white man in the same area, the largest life expectancy gap in the country.

Chicago police are also 14 times more likely to use force against young black men.

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And yet, when we talk about violence in Chicago, pundits and politicians and poor excuses for men (and women) use it to gird their racist tropes of dangerous blacks and excuse police brutality. We rarely hear about violence as a public health crisis, and its long-term effects on those who live within its orbit: those who attend funerals on the regular; those who have held dying friends in their arms, their loved ones quickly, violently ripped away forever.

Black Ink Chicago, the popular VH1 vehicle about an African-American owned and operated tattoo shop, on-air for six seasons, has explored the effects of trauma on mental health in its last two seasons. Mainstay tattoo artist Phor Brumfield, 31, had a very public mental break on set last year which included suicidal ideation, and has since become a mental health advocate, regularly posting on social media about healthy brain life. A VH1 publicist notes that social posts related to Phor’s story generated more than 5 million video views and nearly 20,000 engagements to Half of Us, the network’s Peabody Award-winning mental health campaign.

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Additionally, Ryan Henry, 33, tattoo artist and owner of 9Mag, where Black Ink Chicago is set, started therapy this season to deal with a myriad of issues, the most pressing of which is the trauma of losing his sister years ago to a vicious act of domestic violence, and the cumulative effects of swallowing death in his community on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis.

Both Ryan and Phor seemingly have the world at their fingertips—great jobs, high profiles on television, good familial support—but both spoke about attending the funerals of friends and loved ones on a regular basis. In fact, on the day of our interview, Ryan had just received news of the death of another friend.

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“I’m from Chicago, and we deal with stuff and you’re supposed to take it on,” he tells The Root. “We are environmentalized [sic] to feel that just because we’re from here, you lose five friends in a summer and you’re supposed to be aight because you’re tough. That’s the way we do trauma.”

Castmate Phor concurs: “Just two days ago, I had to go to two funerals in one day; two of my friends just got killed two days before Thanksgiving. One friend just died yesterday. It’s so much trauma, at least here,” he says. “It goes on everywhere, but it becomes so much that you become numb to it and when it [comes] rapidly, you don’t even know how to feel…and those things alone will make you feel like you’re next. Your time is coming. You need those loved ones, and you need those good friends and family members around to keep you sane. Because when those things are taken from your life, you feel like you don’t have nothing, [and] what’s the point of living?”

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This season, Ryan’s story was especially gut-wrenching—he spoke to his therapist about the intimate partner violence that took his sister’s life, and how he and his father had to come to her apartment afterward to clean up her blood. The typically less emotional, hold-it-close-to-the-vest castmember admitted his emotional life had all come to a head, resulting in him not sleeping and with a general malaise hanging over his life.

Phor, on the other hand, didn’t actively choose to share his mental health issues. He just happened to be having a significantly vulnerable moment while the cameras were rolling. He says he sees his shared experience as being strong in the truest sense.

“It wasn’t easy, but honestly for me, what everyone saw, was actually me trying…to do my job and go film but I already knew something was wrong with me mentally, and I was trying to thug it out and keep moving forward and it got the best of me. So it was either say something or do something…that I was going to probably regret,” Phor says.

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“All that day, I was just hearing voices, and things like that…I’ve been in that state of mind before, but I’m normally alone...I was so used to being strong for everybody else, and I just wasn’t strong for myself at that moment. At the same time, I was feeling weak, I was just as much strong for admitting it and letting people know that I’m going through something, yaknowwhadimean?”

Phor says after that incident he took three months off from filming and started going to therapy, giving VH1 the greenlight to show what happened.

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“I was in the process of healing and I knew through my story that I could help someone else,” he says. “Because these are things that get swept under the rug, especially in the black community.”

Ryan says he also came forward with his sister’s death and being open about therapy in order to help others.

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“I wasn’t able to talk about it in earlier years or even to even address it, but I also know what viewer insight it gives to certain people,” he says. “Over the last 10 years of dealing with what I dealt with, I can either bottle it or understand that what happened to my family. What happened to my sister would be a stepping stone for one, if not many women in the same situation to be able to walk away, because it’s so many who don’t think that they can. So that’s why I was able to open up, that’s why I was able to go in-depth and go into detail because somebody’s at home watching it—somebody can walk away from it—then my job is done.”

Dr. John Rich, Professor at the Dornslife School of Public Health and Co-Director of the Drexel Center for Non-Violence and Social Justice, says it’s ironic that a tattoo shop is the site of healing from trauma, as so many memorialize their wounds through ink, carrying their trauma on and “under their skin.”

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Rich has studied what happens to those in communities where violence is prevalent: people are constantly afraid, hypervigilant, jumpy, and exhibit what many would term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. In fact, Dr. Rich says what black folks experience is not PTSD, but ‘sustained traumatic stress reaction.’

“That’s our term,” he tells The Root. “Because, there is no ‘post’,” he says. “If 80 percent of people in your community have it, we can’t call it a disease, we can’t call it a disorder, we have to call it a reaction to what’s happening in your environment.”

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Like Ryan, those suffering from trauma often express an inability to sleep, which sometimes leads to self-medication.

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“If you can’t sleep and somebody outside your door is selling weed and you don’t have access to a primary care doctor who might help you with sleep or if you feel like they [wouldn’t] understand, then you turn to something that’s logical,” explains Dr. Rich. “But of course, the downstream consequences of that could be denial of a job; or going back to jail if you’re on parole.”

“Numbness is also something that we see in people,” Rich continues. “So someone talking with them might not be seeing much emotion, and might interpret that as being hardened or lacking any sense of remorse, when in fact it’s a manifestation of trauma.”

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Another symptom Dr. Rich says is common is severe depression, which is what Phor dealt with very publicly.

“We don’t talk much about depression but we actually know that there are physiological consequences to these kinds of traumas that may lead to chronic disease as people get older and can lead to early death,” says Rich. As with many other issues in this country, it is how the system addresses this trauma that determines whether those who seek redress or relief will be further harmed.

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Dr. Rich says half the battle of trauma is that once young men are caught up in it, it turns into a vicious cycle, spurred in part by the implicit biases of the healthcare system, especially the behavioral healthcare system.

“I think it’s hard to get out for a number of reasons,” says Rich, who also authored a book studying the phenomenon, Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Black Men. “For example, if you always feel unsafe and you live in a community where you see lots of violence, then turning to get a weapon may be a way of feeling safe, rather than a criminal act that’s about committing a crime. But we know that once you’ve gotten a weapon, there’s a much greater risk of you using it or having it used against you.

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“From our perspective, particularly for young people of color, young black men, they’re already perceived in a particular way,” Rich continues. “So for caregivers to think of [their patients] as traumatized or injured rather than somehow bad people is a shift. Often providers in a healthcare setting see a young person who’s not making eye contact, may look kind of numb, may be jumpy and then because of their own implicit biases see this as a young person who’s not telling the truth or somehow involved in some criminal activity, and therefore don’t offer them help. So in one way, these young people are abandoned because they are not regarded with the same care that others would be given.”

But the solution, Rich says, lies in our communities, in tandem with our healthcare systems.

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“We shouldn’t think of this only as a clinical response, but rather how do we think about community,” says Rich, who says that Drexel launched a social media campaign in the summer called “Our Words Heal,” where they began to talk about ways of coping and thriving.

“We designed a website called wecanhealfromtrauma.org where we could just open a space where people talk about how they heal, while also acknowledging the various different sources of trauma and having young people themselves, or people of all generations, talking about this. And I would say it’s been a learning experience for us, transitioning from only talking about PTSD, only talking about sustained trauma to talking about what does healing look like in communities? And what are the capabilities and capacities in young people to heal—because they’re substantial.”

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Ryan and Phor have their own community-based theories on getting communities like those they hail from in Chicago the help they need, require and deserve.

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“Well it’s got to be presented in a different mindset,” Ryan posits. “Here in Chicago with the murder rate and with all of the killings and the shootings—it’s a topic I discussed with Common a few years ago about our city, people from the outside thinking about so many ways to fix it: ‘let’s do this, let’s do that’—[but] we don’t gain anything now by building another community center for them to play basketball at after their friends got killed this summer.

“We need to change the narrative of what we use to help keep them off the street and help cure them...why don’t we have some psychologists open up some free therapy times and offer that at a community level to be able to diagnose post-traumatic stress syndrome not coming from war? Because they’re at war in the streets every day but ain’t nobody diagnosing them with Post Traumatic Stress and he just had his homie die in his hands.”

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“I’ve been becoming more of an advocate to it, so I’ve been going to high schools and speaking about it,” says Phor. “I’ve been doing panels on mental health to bring more awareness to it; my question that I always had was: How do we find people like this without doing events like this? Cause it’s a very intimate situation where some people may not want to come, but you have to still plant these seeds down to see if people want to come or not...I think it’s about coming together as a community or just as youth and our generation it’s necessary right now.”

Phor also says he speaks often to those who feel as if they’re at their wit’s end and has some words for those who may be feeling suicidal.

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“Just to anybody that’s going through anything…always remember that you’re loved. You have purpose. Someone loves you out there,” he says. “You are special in your own way, you have to find your niche in there. Sometimes people do get lost and discouraged because of taking so many losses in life...I still struggle with it. But I just tell myself, ‘I know that I’m loved and I have purpose and I can change this.’ It’s a battle with self for me.”

Tune in to Black Ink Chicago Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on VH1.


If you are thinking about harming yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433; help is available 24 hours a day.

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Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.

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DISCUSSION

hollienanner
hollienanner

I like that Ryan made the connection between war and the situation young people are facing. It will, unfortunately and probably, take a long time to heal... I say this looking at how veterans of foreign wars were treated state side and how no mental care is offered to the youth of war torn countries.

The first thing young people seek after going through trauma is a sense of safety or numbness. that’s 101 coping. the fact that the majority of the United States doesn’t understand that is a true reflection of privilege.