Twenty-five years ago or so, if someone had said to me, “One day you’ll be tattooing nipples on women who have battled breast cancer,” I would have said they were crazy. Yet here I am doing just that, spending the majority of my days implanting pigments into the skin to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional nipple and areola. What a thing it is… or… has become.
Serving in the U.S. Army in South Korea in 1984, a fellow soldier convinced me to give tattooing a try in an effort to supplement my meager income. At the time I think it was $500 per month. What a great plan… I had always been fascinated with the art form as a kid. I was a combat medic and had access to a medical facility and sterilized equipment, and I was familiar with universal precautions and prevention of cross-contamination. Most importantly, by the nature of the military, there was an endless supply of willing candidates eager to let me practice and learn the craft on their skin. The ensuing result was the birth of my tattooing career.
The following 17 years I spent traveling the world plying my craft and discovering everything I possibly could about this legendary, and at the time, little-known art form. Since then, the newfound main stream acceptability of tattooing has begun to open other doors for me and many other tattoo professionals.
In 2001 I was contacted by a local plastic surgeon who asked me if I would be interested in tattooing a few of his patients who’d had breast reconstruction. “Yes… nipples,” he declared. “What a novel idea,” I thought. Tattooing realistic images was my specialty, and this should be fairly easy. Little did I know that it would not be easy, and I wasn’t prepared for the powerful impression it was about to have on me — and more importantly, the overwhelmingly positive psychological impact it would have on the women I would tattoo. Using the fundamental skills learned from years of traditional tattooing, the metamorphosis into “medical cosmetic tattooing” or “3D nipple/areola tattooing” became obvious and seamless.
“3D nipple/areola tattooing,” as it’s been coined, has redefined a procedure that for so long has been somewhat overlooked in the reconstructive healing process of those affected by breast cancer. In the past, most often, the only option for so many was to have a patch of pigments implanted into the skin by hospital or office staff. While in some instances the results may have been good, many were not. Thus, the obvious transition of this practice was towards tattoo professionals — those who’ve spent their entire careers perfecting the craft: trained cosmetic tattooers (who apply permanent makeup) and traditional tattoo artists. Using the foundational skills of tattooing coupled with precisely mixed pigments, shadows, and highlights, a very realistic result can be achieved. This 3D approach to the procedure offers each client numerous possibilities in obtaining the best end result and appearance, even for those who’ve already had nipple tattooing done.
A little more than a year ago, my younger sister was diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer. Her battle has reinvigorated my desire to help as many people as I can with what has become my newfound career path. While tattooing “MOM” hearts and dragons was fun and a great job, this new dynamic in my vocation has become my obsession. The future for me will be to connect with as many people as I can either through tattooing, consulting, or teaching what I’m learning so that those affected by breast cancer can be — as Lillie Shockney, R.N. and director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, put it — “whole again.”
I feel like I have the best possible job as a service provider for breast cancer warriors. I’m on the back side of the battle… the finishing touch… the last step. I truly get to put the “cherries on the cupcakes”!
I look forward to hearing your questions and thoughts.