Liz Atkin is an internationally acclaimed visual artist based in London. She has Compulsive Skin Picking, a complex physical and mental disorder. Here she tells us how she reimagines body-focused repetitive behaviour and anxiety as art…

Anxiety is now cited as one of the most common of mental illnesses. But some anxiety disorders, such as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours like Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP or Dermatillomania) and Hair-Pulling (Trichotillomania), are seldom recognised and treatment is still hard to access in the UK.

These conditions are much more common than initially thought and are among the most poorly understood, misdiagnosed and undertreated groups of disorders. I’m trying to change that by speaking out about my experience and recovery and sharing information every day through art and acts of kindness.

The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors says that:

“Compulsive Skin Picking or Dermatillomania is characterised by the repetitive picking of one’s own skin. Individuals who struggle with this disorder touch, rub, scratch, pick at, or dig into their skin in an attempt to improve perceived imperfections, often resulting in tissue damage, discolouration, or scarring…

Liz Atkin

‘Anxiety Drawings’, Liz Atkin’s new series of digital works, helps to refocus and transform often-overwhelming inner sensations of unease and turmoil.

Occasional picking at cuticles, acne, scabs, calluses or other skin irregularities is a very common human behaviour; however, research indicates that 2% - 5% of the population picks their skin to the extent that it causes noticeable tissue damage and marked distress or impairment in daily functioning. 75% of people affected are female. Without treatment, skin picking disorder tends to be a chronic condition that may wax and wane over time.”

Skin picking was, for me, from a young age, a way to release tension in my body, to block out emotions and hit a ‘zoned-out’ sense of calm. It became a private vicious cycle that totally dominated my life behind closed doors. My body was littered with wounds and marks beneath my clothes. It also developed into something I did subconsciously, so there were hours where I would be picking my skin. Some nights I would pick until the early hours of the morning; I would even pick in my sleep. Many times, I would be poised at the bathroom mirror, a private space. No one knew about it. I masked and covered the illness from those closest to me, wearing clothes that concealed the parts of my body covered in scabs and scars, making excuses and even using make-up on my body to mask it.

I experienced intense anxiety, followed by guilt and shame about something I was doing that caused harm to my own body, yet felt no control or ability to stop. I suffered in silence for a very long time. I even hid it from various doctors over the years. The illness went undiagnosed until my early 30s. By that point, I had been picking for the best part of 25 years and it was only through internet searches that I realised it had a name.

#CompulsiveCharcoal: Free Art for Commuters

Liz Atkin's #CompulsiveCharcoal drawings. Free art for commuters around the world.

I got to a point where I didn’t want this illness controlling me anymore. There were perpetual cycles of shame, embarrassment and anxiety and I had no choice really to try and help myself because it was destroying me. But the body has always been my fascination for me. I had studied dance and drama throughout my education and in my early 30s I signed up for a Master’s in Dance. It was then that I found I had to confront the illness head-on.

Studying movement meant I could no longer avoid the picking. As part of the course, we were encouraged to study our everyday movement patterns. For the first time, I looked at how this illness dominated my physicality. Very slowly I began to document what the illness had done to my body. I began to recognise the illness was a unique dance, and that I could turn it into something else, something creative to move away from the harm it was doing to me. Through dance, I was able to express things I didn’t have language for and channelled the specific movements of the illness across my body into photography and performance. Fifteen years ago, I began making artwork specifically about the body-focused repetitive behaviour.

Art has become a valuable tool for my recovery. I use my experience of this illness not only to inspire and contribute to my own artistic work and development but also to allow me to normalise, manage and improve the condition. More recently drawing has become one of the best ways to refocus my hands and calm tension and anxiety. I now share my experience of Skin Picking to de-stigmatise mental illness, to raise awareness and offer help to others with this devastating condition who may feel they have nowhere to turn.

Liz Atkin, Anxiety Drawings. This new series of digital drawings helps to refocus and transform her often-overwhelming inner sensations of unease and turmoil.

Liz Atkin, from the ‘Anxiety Drawings’ series (2018/2019)

My Compulsive Charcoal series began when I ran out of sketchbook space on a journey from South to North London in 2015 and to stop my skin picking and a panic attack from happening, I graffitied a discarded newspaper left on the seat beside me. Slowly this has evolved to become a daily action wherever I am. I was catching the eye of passengers curious about why I was drawing with such speed in the middle of the carriage, so actively started giving the drawings away.

Every time I create Compulsive Charcoal drawings, I hand out free postcards to others in the carriage as well as the recipient of a drawing. This explains the condition and encourages people to join in by sharing the postcard or drawing on Instagram or Twitter with #CompulsiveCharcoal.

The ripple effect of people finding out about Compulsive Skin Picking through this process has been incredible, and the series has gained great momentum around the world. I've given away more than 17,000 of my drawings so far on public transport in London, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Cologne and beyond.

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Liz Atkin is an internationally acclaimed visual artist, mental health advocate and speaker, raising awareness of Compulsive Skin Picking around the world. Liz has exhibited and taught in the UK, Europe, Australia, USA, Singapore and Japan. She’s widely known for her free #CompulsiveCharcoal newspaper graffiti and has given away more than 17,000 drawings to commuters on public transport across the globe. To recognize this work, she received the Unstoppable Spirit Award for Outspoken Advocacy at the TLC Global Conference for Skin Picking and Hair Pulling Disorders in San Francisco in 2018 and was a finalist in the Janey Antoniou Award with Rethink Mental Illness in 2018. Her work has featured on TEDx, BBC, Huffington Post, Mashable, Channel News Asia, Straits Times Singapore and more. Find out more about Liz at And follow her on Twitter (@lizatkin) and Instagram (@liz_atkin).