Skin deep

How intricate, beautiful tattoos are transforming mastectomy scars for breast cancer survivors

For some who have undergone a mastectomy, tattoos are proving to be a meaningful alternative to conventional reconstructive procedures

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When Noel Franus’s sister-in-law Molly learned she had breast cancer, she grappled with the difficult reality that the double-mastectomy that might save her life would also result in the loss of both of her nipples. Her doctor proposed a tattoo to recreate the appearance of a nipple, but Molly wanted something more creative and authentic. Looking for other tattoo options, Molly and her family hit a roadblock: They found it difficult to locate qualified artists online, Franus said in an email interview.

Instead of abandoning the idea, they recognized an opportunity to create a centralized place for alternative tattoo options. Franus, who was working at a global ad agency at the time, took on the task. He launched Personal Ink, or P.ink, with a Pinterest page featuring tattoo inspiration and artist profiles and contact information that made it easy for someone looking for a tattoo to connect with an artist.

Soon, P.ink began gaining momentum, and as more survivors connected with artists through the site, Franus decided to expand. In 2013, together with Saved Tattoo in New York, Franus organized the first P.ink Day, which paired 10 artists with 10 survivors for a day of tattooing.

Stephanie Tamez, co-owner of Saved Tattoo, opened the doors of her shop to P.ink and brought together a team of artists for the 12 hour ink-a-thon. A tattoo artist for more than 22 years, Tamez said her first experience with a mastectomy client, “was an amazing thing to see her feel so transformed, and to sort of take back her body in that away.”

As Tamez has acquired experience tattooing breast cancer survivors, she’s learned the intricacies of the women’s scars, and their stories. “I’m always conscious of the fact that their body might be more sensitive, depending on how the operation went,” she told Women in the World. “There can be more nerve sensation in some areas than others, and I’m constantly checking in with them to make sure they’re ok.”

In the two years since its launch, P.ink Day has expanded to 12 locations across North America and takes place in October. The experience has been unforgettable for the team at Saved Tattoo. “All the women felt really honored to be asked to do it, and really stepped up to do the best they could. It was an exhausting, exhilarating and emotional day for everyone,” Tamez recalled. “My first thought was that these women are such warriors, and they came in with such excitement and a positive attitude and were so open to us. I realized there was a great need for it, and it was kind of like a movement was starting.”

As for the survivors who courageously step in on P.ink Day to receive a mastectomy tattoo, Franus said the experience often goes beyond what’s visible, giving some a renewed sense of control over their recovery process. “You’re looking at someone who sees a clear dividing line in their life, one that separates who they were yesterday and who they’ll be tomorrow. And it’s articulated in the most beautiful way, one that visibly signifies control, empowerment, defiance.”

P.INK DAY ~ Saved Tattoo ~ Brooklyn 2013

Mari Ruddy’s lotus flower tattoo covers her mastectomy scar. Photo by David Rose courtesy P.ink

 

One survivor, P.ink Day Minneapolis participant Mari Ruddy, told Skin Deep Magazine, “I feel so different about how my body looks. The lotus flower is right where my breast used to be … It’s incredible and delicately balanced. Somehow it feels like I did something that created harmony for myself.”

P.ink addresses other aspects of life for survivors beyond the tattoos. “The journey from diagnosis to surgery to surviving is one that’s loaded with many unmet needs,” Franus explained. “Breast cancer as a cause gets massive attention, but ‘once you’ve beaten it’ the world seems to wipe its hands clean and scoot you on your way. Surviving is an ongoing series of challenges.”

One such challenge is the intimidation that sometimes came with “trying on” a tattoo design. “Most survivors, even if they’re comfortable with the idea of a tattoo, they’re not going to walk into the tattoo parlor down the street because that can be intimidating,” Franus said. P.ink’s new Inkspiration app provides an alternative experience. “We bring the creative process to them—try on a tattoo, save your favorites or share with some trusted friends. And then you can tap over to see our directory of trusted artists to take the next step.”

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