When tattoos tell a tale of tragedy: From a horrifically scarred woman who lost her family in a plane crash to a former self-harmer – people reveal the life-changing events that inspired their inkings

  • Four women visited tattoo artist Poppy Segger in Brighton for their tattoos
  • Each of the participants got an inking as a way to represent life difficulties 
  • One woman who had survived a plane crash that killed her family had one in memorian of her parents and younger brother
  • A breast cancer survivor wanted to cover up her mastectomy scar to ‘feel pretty’ 
  • They took part in BBC Three documentary series A Tattoo to Change My Life

From a woman paying tribute to the stranger who saved her life by pulling her from the wreckage of a plane crash to a breast cancer survivor, people have opened up about the life-changing moments they have commemorated with tattoos

British tattoo artist Poppy Segger, 22, specialises in helping people get the perfect inking as a way of making something positive out of a difficult life experience, after going through her own mental health battles.

She appears in the BBC Three documentary A Tattoo to Change My Life where she helps four women create a design that represents a significant and challenging period in their lives.

Featured in the series are Tulsa Vagjiani, who lost her family in a plane crash 28 years ago as they flew to the UK from India. She was pulled from the wreckage but was left with severe scars all over her body.

Mother-of-two Maia is a breast cancer survivor who chooses to cover her mastectomy scar with a tattoo to ‘feel pretty’ again.

Also featured is 18-year-old Viktoria, who wants to cover up her self-harming scars; Jen who gets a tattoo to cover up the stretch marks from her weight loss.

Tattoo artist Poppy Segger cries after tattooing self-harm scars
Tatto artist Poppy Segger has been inking people for four years helping those who have scarring that they want covering up

Tattoo artist Poppy Segger has been inking people for four years helping those who have scarring that they want covering up

Tulsi Vagjiani lost her entire family in a plane crash 28 years ago, she was pulled from the wreckage but left with scars covering her face, arms, torso and legs

Tulsi Vagjiani lost her entire family in a plane crash 28 years ago, she was pulled from the wreckage but left with scars covering her face, arms, torso and legs

She chose to get a tiger tattoo in honour of her family as part of BBC Three's documentary series A Tattoo to Change My Life

She chose to get a tiger tattoo in honour of her family as part of BBC Three’s documentary series A Tattoo to Change My Life

Poppy estimates that up to 70 per cent of her work involves covering up people’s scars.

‘People often underestimate the impact a tattoo can have on someone’s life,’ she explained.

‘To them it is just a tattoo, but they don’t understand the personal battle that happens to just get through it, get the tattoo and close that chapter.

‘It’s nice to know that because of something I can do will help make someone else a little bit stronger,’ she added.

Tulsi's parents Dhanji and Premila, and younger brother Kamlesh were killed in 1990 when the plane they were travelling in from Mumbai to Bangalore crashed on landing

Tulsi’s parents Dhanji and Premila, and younger brother Kamlesh were killed in 1990 when the plane they were travelling in from Mumbai to Bangalore crashed on landing

TULSI VAGJIANI, 38, plane crash survivor

Tulsi Vagjiani, 38, was the only surviving member of her family after a 1990 plane crash that killed her parents, Dhanji and Premila, and brother Kamlesh.

The motivational speaker, from London was on her first holiday to India aged 10, when the plane she and her family were travelling on crashed on landing in Bangalore and burst into flames.

She was saved from the wreckage by a fellow passenger but was left with horrific burns and decided to get a tattoo in honour of their memory.

‘The only memory I have of the day of the crash, is me fighting with my younger brother because I wanted to sit by the window, and I remember he always got his way with things like that,’ she recalled.

She struggled to deal with how she looked following the crash and endured more than 50 operations to rebuild her face, arms and legs.

Because the scarring all over her body leaves her skin extremely thin and sensitive, Poppy advises against Tulsi getting a tattoo over a scar on her arm, instead inking a tiger design on the part of her leg that isn’t scarred.

Tulsi, who is now a motivational speaker, had over 50 operations to rebuild her face, legs and arms

Tulsi, who is now a motivational speaker, had over 50 operations to rebuild her face, legs and arms

MAIA, breast cancer survivor

Maia had a mastectomy operation three and a half years ago and was left with two scars that she sees as a permanent and ‘constant reminder’ of her battle with cancer.

‘It’s a reminder of something that I would rather forget. It doesn’t look too pretty, I don’t like the look of it.’

The mother-of-two wants a tattoo to feel pretty again and visits tattoo artist Poppy: ‘It’s a step out of my comfort zone and something that I never thought I would do.

‘I think sometimes you have to stretch your capabilities and do scary things. But I probably wouldn’t have done this before cancer.’

Maia explains that the only people who have seen her scars are her doctors and consultants and her husband.

‘I never thought I would get cancer. In my mind I thought I was young, I was healthy and I had a good lifestyle.

Mother-of-two Maia went through breast cancer

She had a mastectomy on one breast and wanted to get a tattoo to cover up her scars and feel 'pretty' again

Mother-of-two Maia went through breast cancer. She had a mastectomy on one breast and wanted to get a tattoo to cover up her scars and feel ‘pretty’ again

Maia had initially had an implant following her mastectomy but decided to have it removed as it didn't feel natural

Maia had initially had an implant following her mastectomy but decided to have it removed as it didn’t feel natural

Before her cancer diagnosis, Maia was fit and healthy

Maia was fit and healthy and was left feeling scared when she discovered she would have to go through treatment

Pictured before her cancer diagnosis with her two children and husband. Maia was fit and healthy and was left feeling scared when she discovered she would have to go through treatment

‘When I was diagnosed I was scared, I didn’t really understand what was going to happen and what the future held. I thought I was going to die, I didn’t really understand cancer, it was extremely scary.

The cancer survivor said she found it mentally difficult going through the battle and when she was cleared
The cancer survivor said she found it mentally difficult going through the battle and when she was cleared

Maia initially had an implant to replace her breast, but she said it didn’t feel natural and so made the decision to have it taken out.

‘When I see my scars it’s a constant reminder of what happened. I can’t grow a boob back, it’s always going to be like it is now, and I just need to accept it and get on with it.’

She explained how her cancer journey was mentally difficult with multiple hospital appointments, radiotherapy and her mastectomy operations.

‘It was hard. Afterwards you are just dropped off and expected to get on with life. It’s hard you forget what life was like before,’ Maia said of being given the all-clear.

‘This tattoo is definitely a way of me taking ownership of what is happening to my body, not for cancer to decide.

‘It’s important for me to share my story, and for people to feel like they are not alone.’

VIKTORIA, 18, former self harmer

‘When I look at my scars it does make me sad to think that I could do that to myself. Covering up my scars is a step towards being comfortable with having my arms out in public and not making someone uncomfortable.’

The 18-year-old from London, wants to cover up some of her self-harming scars that are on her left arm. She also has scars on her upper legs and torso.

‘I was always a very shy child. At the age of ten was when I started to not feel happy. I was very down all the time.

Viktoria went through depression at a young age, and chose to have a tattoo to cover up the scars on her arm from self-harming

Viktoria went through depression at a young age, and chose to have a tattoo to cover up the scars on her arm from self-harming

She began self-harming when she was just 10, and said she found it a 'release' from the stress she felt

She began self-harming when she was just 10, and said she found it a ‘release’ from the stress she felt

‘I came home from school one day and I was so stressed out. I had all these emotions built up inside of me and I needed a release.

‘I had heard of self-harming online and so I did it. I felt a sense of relief. It went from once a week, to once every other day, to every day.’

Viktoria explains her decision behind a lily of the valley design because it is a symbol of her birth month of May and the ‘coming of happiness’.

‘It’s a reminder that I was born for a reason, and I’m still here for a reason. And it symbolises the turning of a new page,’ she said.

‘At 11 years old, after about four months of self-harming, my P.E. teacher pulled me aside after a lesson and said “I saw the cuts on your arm, you need to see a school counsellor”.

Realising how much her self-harming hurt her mother (pictured with Viktoria as a young child) was the turning point towards her recovery

Realising how much her self-harming hurt her mother (pictured with Viktoria as a young child) was the turning point towards her recovery

In the BBC Three documentary Viktoria has a lily of the valley tattoo design over her scars to represent her birth month

In the BBC Three documentary Viktoria has a lily of the valley tattoo design over her scars to represent her birth month

‘For me personally I was always worried about being a disappointment to my mum. I did have regular thoughts about suicide during my whole depression. I had a few times where I tried to overdose.

Viktoria said that eventually seeing how much her self-harming hurt her mother was motivation to stop.

The teenager has decided to become a doctor but is nervous about making her patients uncomfortable because of her visible scars, but says the tattoo will make her less self-conscious.

‘For me the scars are doing something good for me, they remind me that I overcame that. So I can overcome anything else that comes my way.’

Jen was 22 stone by the time she was 24 after turning to food as a way of comforting her depression

Jen was 22 stone by the time she was 24 after turning to food as a way of comforting her depression

Jen explained that food was her addiction
She said that she got married in a size 28 wedding dress but has since lost ten stone
Jen explained that food was her addiction. She said that she got married in a size 28 wedding dress but has since lost ten stone

JEN, 26, lost ten stone

Jen, 26, had ballooned to 22 stone by the time she was 24 years old: ‘Food was a big addiction for me.’

She was diagnosed with depression when at 18 and saw food as her comfort, eating junk food or ready meals and very little fruit or vegetables.

‘There would be mornings when I’d wake up and not remember how much I’d eaten.’

Jen, who has since lost ten stone, stepped back in to the size 28 wedding dress she wore when she got married two years previously.

‘I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like my body or the way it looked, or my life. I got bigger I started using food as a way to control my emotions,’ she recalled.

Jen's body had been covered in stretch marks and she chose to cover up some of those marks on her calf with a leaf print design

Jen’s body had been covered in stretch marks and she chose to cover up some of those marks on her calf with a leaf print design

‘It’s very difficult not to feel that lingering feeling that I damaged my body and have been left with scars all over my body,’ Jen said of her stretch marks which she sees as ‘self-harm scars’.

‘Every time I look at them I remind myself of what I used to do with food,’ she said.

Jen chose to have a leaf print design to cover up the marks which appear on the back of her calves as a way to start thinking positively about her future and the progress she’s made.

A Tattoo to Change My Life series is available to watch on BBC Three iPlayer now