My tattoo art helps women feel beautiful after breast cancer

It was a cold call in 2011 from a woman who had undergone a single mastectomy for breast cancer that took Amy Black’s tattoo career in a new direction.

After her surgery to remove her nipple, she was looking for a tattoo artist that could create a new one. “What she was asking for was just a two-inch circle, but the healing properties that two-inch circle had were so much bigger than that,” Black says, speaking from her tattoo shop in Virginia, in the US.

Women who have had breast cancer surgery have told her about a daily experience, coined “the mastectomy drive-by”: walking past the bathroom mirror in the morning and being confronted with the scars. “It’s a constant reminder of cancer, but they’ve told me the tattooing helps to cure that,” she says.

Black has 10 years of experience in tattooing and she said yes to the cold caller. Since then, Black has used her skills to create the illusion that natural nipples or areola textures.

“That first woman who came in was amazing, she was so supportive and after we finished the tattoo she was so happy and wanted to share it with the world, to promote to other cancer survivors that tattooing is an option,” she says.

Back in 2011, there weren’t many people offering nipple tattoos, and while hospitals and surgeons incorporate tattooing and nipple re-pigmentation into reconstructive surgery, they tend to offer something more rudimentary such as two different block-color circles. Black has been referred by many US plastic surgeons. Clients have come from as far away as Sydney, Australia.

“The women you meet in my career are so courageous; to know that they’ve gone through dealing with breast cancer, and then find a tattoo artist having never stepped foot into a tattoo shop before.” The youngest client she had was around 21, and the oldest was more than 70. Meeting these women is one of Black’s favorite aspects of the job.

But it’s an expensive business. Black charges around $250 (£174) per breast, with each taking 30-45 minutes, but the market rate can be as much as $800. Officially, she was the first to launch. The Pink Ink Fund Last year, a charity was established to provide financial assistance for people who have had to get mastectomy tattoos done.

While studying fine art oil painting at college, Black fell in love with the human body. Black was a college student in anatomy and figure drawing, which would eventually lead to ink flesh. But first, she got a tattoo of her own, a tiny Korean proverb on her hip that can be loosely interpreted as “never give up”. Black’s tattoo collection grew from there. She was trained as an apprentice in the 1990s. In 2000, she became a certified tattoo artist. She opened her first studio in 2005.

She shared that she had seen many young breast cancer patients come to her for help. Many people are looking for creative ways to cover their scars and avoid 3D nipple Tattoos.

“The younger generation of survivors are sharing their stories on social media more and posting pictures of their decorative tattoos – so it becomes an option for other people,” Black says. “They want something pretty to look at rather than the remainder of cancer they went through.”

Breasts tattooed with a cherry blossom pattern
Not all of Black’s clients want nipple tattoos, some want something pretty to look at, like this cherry blossom design. Amy Black

One of Black’s favorites is the first mastectomy tattoo she did for a woman who decided not to get reconstruction. She was a nurse and chose to have a grapevine tattooed over her surgery scars in a pattern that didn’t necessarily cover the scars.

“It was designed to be a statement of winning her battle over cancer and accepting the scars that that chapter of her life had given her,” she says. “The grapevine symbolized renewal since every year a grapevine renews itself and sprouts new life and beautiful leaves and fruit from a hardy vine.”

A lot of thought and planning needs to go into the designs, especially with Black’s toughest cases. “One client came to me with a lot of asymmetries and very deep scarring – we did a beautiful cherry blossom design, scattered asymmetrically to take the eye away from how unevenly her implants had settled.”

“It’s wonderful to be able to help others and use art to do whatever it is they come to you with a request for. Sometimes it is to help them get through tough times, or celebrate things, like the birth of a child or a wedding anniversary,” she says. “Being able to make a living out of it is so rare. Very few of my college friends went on to be artists, most had to switch careers.”

Black says that a strong work ethic, a meticulous approach to your craft, and an open mind to criticism are the mark of a good tattoo artist. Black is passionate about tattooing and loves working with all kinds of tattoos, including those that are based on botanical themes or Tibetan tattoos. Her favorite artists are Klimt, Michelangelo, and others. She believes it’s important to be able to adapt to different styles and take on any task.

“One of the more interesting tattoos I got to do recently was covering a woman’s whole scalp. She had lost her hair due to alopecia and it was her first tattoo ever,” Black says. “We did a decorative vine pattern with a blue lotus on the back.” Now the woman rarely wears the wig she had used for years and goes about town showing her tattooed head.

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