Tattoo Artist with Stage IV Breast Cancer on Finding Strength Through Ink: ‘It’s My Immortality’

Tattoo Artist with Stage IV Breast Cancer on Finding Strength Through Ink: ‘It’s My Immortality’

Sue Jeiven is a tiny, ebullient woman. That’s probably the first thing you notice about her. She radiates energy, excitement — all of those “e” words. Actually, the tattoos are the first thing you notice about her. She’s quite literally covered; all the standard places, sure, but also her fingers, palms and face — three tiny dots in a triangle by her right eye. It’s likely she’s also wearing Mr. T amounts of gold chains and some leopard print. An astoundingly talented tattoo artist, Sue works at East River Tattoo in Brooklyn and regularly makes the list of the top artists in the city. She has nearly 43,000 followers on Instagram.

All of which make the fact that she has stage 4 breast cancer a complete sucker punch.

Sue was born in Brooklyn, in Flatbush. She grew up in New Jersey, attending Bound Brook High School with future members of the punk band The Bouncing Souls. “I’ve wanted to tattoo since I was really young, like 4 years old,” Sue tells PEOPLE. “The first tattoo I ever saw was on my uncle. It was the Zig Zag man. And I thought it was the coolest thing ever! And then the other one he had was a rose with a skull in its mouth, which I have since gotten.”

Sue started getting tattooed at 15, traveling into New York City in the ’80s — “a really scary place to be,” she recalls, “and not the place for a young girl to be” — and getting a fake ID so she could get work done at a parlor near her house in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “I lucked out,” she says. “It was a brutal biker shop, but I realize now that it was a really good shop and they were really nice to me.”

Sue initially majored in art education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where the punk scene was beginning to coalesce around the Bouncing Souls — “I took all of them to get tattooed, I was responsible for ruining these kids’ lives” — though she says she found college to be a little too much like high school, and Rutgers dropped her major to boot. Wanting to leave New Jersey, she transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore — partially to get closer to D.C.’s flourishing punk scene, which included legends like Fugazi and Born Against — where she switched majors to industrial design, drawing up to 13 hours a day.

While part of the punk scene there, witnessing seminal moments like the first Bikini Kill show, Sue started an organization called Chicks Up Front, dedicated to increasing the visibility — and with it, the safety of — women at punk shows. She started booking shows for bands at MICA as well.

Sue’s influences as an artist run the gamut from the expected, like the groundbreaking horror comics from the EC imprint in the ’50s to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to more atypical things like evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick and German expressionists like Albrecht Dürer, which she picked up in art history classes. The first tattoo she ever did on herself was a medieval engraving from Dante’s Inferno.

It was around then that Sue started looking for a tattoo apprenticeship. “Girls did not tattoo at this time,” she says. So after graduating college, she moved to Richmond, Virginia (another hotspot for underground music, with local legends bands like Gwar and Avail hitting their stride around the time) for the summer. There, she got a job working the counter at a tattoo shop. “That place was so disgusting,” she recalls. So she dedicated herself to bringing the shop up to par. “I went crazy, I slept on the floor sometimes. I didn’t do it with the idea that it was going to help me get an apprenticeship, I did it because I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

“The owner of the shop never said, ‘Oh, thank you for all the work, I know we don’t pay you that much,’ ” Sue remembers. “He just said at one point, ‘Well, I guess I gotta teach you, then.’ It wasn’t even something I thought was a career for a woman; there were no female tattooers at that point. But doing all that feminist, DIY stuff led up to this; I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Sue remembers the first advice he gave her: “‘Skin is something you’ll never understand, but that you need to respect. It’s like nothing else.’ So he just outlined a big black star on one of his buddy’s legs and said, ‘Go nuts.’ And he would just come by occasionally while I was getting the feel for it and say, ‘Going too deep … Not going deep enough.'”

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The lone woman at the shop, Sue became the default tattoo artist for the flocks of college girls coming into the shop, honing her skills one piece at a time around 1994, when tattooing was experiencing a surge of popularity as “alternative” culture went mainstream. (Think Lollapalooza, nose piercings, Doc Martens.) After about two months, the owner of the shop retired, and his son took over, expanding Red Dragon to multiple locations and running the local tattoo convention. But he told Sue that with the increased responsibilities, he was going to have to end her apprenticeship: There was no one at the shop to give her the teaching and monitoring a formal tattoo apprenticeship required. “So I quit,” she says, and moved back to Baltimore, getting a job at a high-end shop there.

“No one’s giving me a direct apprenticeship,” she says, “but they’re all like, ‘Well, you work the counter and work your ass off and we’ll teach you what we can.’ After three weeks they saw me tattoo, and they said, ‘You’re doing this all wrong, this is a complete mess, whoever taught you is an idiot, you’re not touching these machines, you’re a counter person.’ And I realized everything I’d learned had been old-school, ‘get ’em in, get ’em out’ style, whereas the people I was working with now were real artists.”

“I did not take that well,” Sue remembers. “I called my mom from a payphone, crying, and she’s saying, ‘Well, I told you this wasn’t a real job.’ And to be honest with you, I gave up. I quit and I moved back to New Jersey. I was so indignant, but looking back, nothing they did to me, they did to me. It was all legitimate, constructive feedback.”

Sue started working as a booking agent, including for New York’s legendary venue CBGB’s. From there, she started tour managing and going on the road with up-and-coming punk bands like The Casualties, Blanks 77 and her old friends The Bouncing Souls. She’d given up tattooing and wasn’t drawing, but was still working constantly, running around with a beeper, driving and making calls around the clock. “I was having anxiety attacks, I started to really kind of hate everything,” she says, explaining the burnout that goes with the constant grind of booking and managing. “But I wanted to ride it out, I knew I was in the middle of something with a lot of opportunities.”

Through another punk band, The Unseen, Sue made the move to Boston, landing in the middle of the city’s thriving punk scene, that included the rapidly-rising Dropkick Murphys. She was also angling to get back into tattooing, without realizing that it had been illegal in the state of Massachusetts since 1967. She got a job at an antique store and kept booking, putting together shows that read like a who’s who of the region’s punk scene at the time. Eventually, she made the move to open her own venue, taking over the lease of the antique store and opening Regeneration Records, a record store and punk venue that would morph into one of the city’s first legal tattoo parlors since the 1960s.

“It was incredibly successful and exhausting and really, such a pain in the ass,” Sue remembers. She started a band and kept up with the store, but wanted to keep tattooing. So she and roughly a dozen or so other people contacted the ACLU about suing the state of Massachusetts to legalize tattooing.

“So at this point, I’m $80,000 in debt, running the record store and the venue; I owe to my family, I owe to loans, I’m hiding my car from the repo man, I was nearly arrested… but I’m working for the ACLU,” Sue says. “I was the only one willing to stand up and present to all the different commonwealths of Boston.”

Working with another woman and the ACLU, Sue basically uncovered the fact that the state’s ban dated back to Boston’s famously corrupt Mayor James Curley, who wanted the real estate in the city’s Scollay Square. Curley declared that there had been an outbreak of syphilis and hepatitis in the shops, and the health board shuttered them all — along with the Square’s burlesque theaters and low-income housing, eventually displacing some 2,000 residents — and the area became the new site of Boston’s city hall and the sprawling Government Center. Sue’s research charted the history of crime rates and public health records in Scollay Square, helping to expose the fact that Curley’s declaration had been a total canard. (Her father, a health inspector, flew in to help provide testimony.)

In October 2000, Massachusetts overturned the ban, and Sue performed the first legal tattoo in the state since the ’60s. By 2003, she had Regeneration Tattoo up and running, but was still living with 13 people and driving around with no plates, registration or insurance on her car. “But at this point, I realize my tattooing sucks,” she says. Wanting to focus more on that, and less on the administrative aspects of the job, she sold her stake in the shop to the Dropkick Murphys, a move that helped her get on the road to solvency. One of the last tattoos she did at Regeneration was the cover of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, done in the distinctive black-ink-only, line-work style that she’s known for now.

“And that was it. I said, ‘I quit color,’ and threw all my colored inks in the garbage,” Sue says of her epiphany. “And people told me, ‘That is the stupidest thing, you are screwed.’ But I knew this was my style, and I never went back.”

“This was 2008, and I moved back to my parents’ house again. I was at zero, but I was able to pay my parents back, which really repaired our relationship. To give your parents almost $100,000…” She then heard through a friend that Duke Riley, East River Tattoo’s owner and an artist with an adjacent, if not completely similar style to Sue’s, was hiring.

“I said, ‘I’m getting this f—in’ job.” A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Riley had run in the same circles as Sue in New England and knew of Regeneration, but there were still 150 other applicants standing between her and the job. She had an appointment with him on Wednesday, but showed up at the shop at 7 a.m. on Monday, waited for him, and then bluffed her way into getting the first spot to talk with him. “I wouldn’t leave, basically,” she says. “I called every day. The following Monday, I just showed up like I’d gotten the job.”

The pair moved East River from a private shop to a full-fledged studio, which now features, alongside a dizzying collection of 20th-century ephemera, many of Sue’s taxidermy pieces. (A talented taxidermist as well, Sue taught classes on the art regularly at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum.) Riley filled in the gaps in Sue’s knowledge of tattooing, and eventually the shop gathered a close-knit roster of artists who more or less all operate within the same black-ink, high-contrast, stark style. “I don’t think we all would have come together if we hadn’t all learned every style of tattooing — tribal, Japanese, traditional American — and come around to these different forms of line work. I may not be the best tattooer, but I am certainly one of the most obsessed.”

“Everything was on the upward trajectory,” Sue remembers. But around 2009 or 2010, she started to deal with an array of health maladies, just being bone-tired, experiencing different infections that wouldn’t go away. Without health insurance, she kept writing them off.

“Something in my brain said, ‘Something’s wrong,’ ” she says. “But none of these things were very serious. You wouldn’t put these things together at 37 to mean… cancer. I even had a physical where they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re fine.’ And I thought, I guess I’m just getting older. I’d make weird excuses that had to do with stress and not eating right.”

That winter, “I was at my parents’ house, taking a shower, and I found a lump. And I knew it. It all just hit me. I got out of the shower and I just started screaming. Because I knew it. It was like I had been avoiding this, and I knew it. I just didn’t know how bad it was going to be. I figured, ‘Okay, this is gonna be the start of something bad, but I don’t know how bad.’ “

“So they do the tests, I find out I have the BRCA gene. They tell me that it’s malignant, Stage II, that I’m gonna need a lumpectomy and chemo. Then they do more tests. And those tests take weeks — everything from an MRI to blood tests — you name it. It is brutal. At this point, I’m kind of in denial. I’m still working every day, I didn’t tell anybody. I’m thinking I’m just gonna be able to get past this and move on.”

“Then they call me in, and said ‘Look, we found that first of all, the lump has gotten huge, really quickly, it’s in your right breast as well, it’s in your spine, it’s in your lymph nodes, and it’s in your ovaries. It’s Stage IV.’ And I had to have all this explained to me, but what it basically meant was that, it was there. It wasn’t going away. When I heard ‘Stage IV,’ that’s when it hit me that I was very, very sick, and that things were never going to go back to the way they were.”

“At one point, I turned to my mom and said, ‘I gotta go back to work.’ And I went back to work and I did a tattoo. Your brain can only handle so much.”

Within a week, Sue was scheduled for a battery of massively invasive surgeries — full double mastectomy, full hysterectomy, lymph node removal on one side — radiation and chemo. “And I said ‘Chemo for how long?’ And the oncologist said, ‘Oh, forever.’ “

“I think more than the fact that I was going to lose my breasts, I was never going to have children, that my life was going to end up being pretty short … it was the idea of being on chemo forever that really wrecked me. Because that means you do not travel for more than 10 days to two weeks, ever, you don’t travel to countries that don’t have a certain kind of healthcare… you just can’t do a lot of things. And there’s gonna be a point where I can’t be tattooing anymore, because I’ll need a port. Oh, and I’m going to go blind.”

“July 22, 2011, I went into a surgery that was 22 hours long. And I came out missing half my body. I went to sleep with breasts — that were pretty f—king awesome, if I do say so myself — and I woke up with tubes. It was awful. It was the worst recovery. Three months, you’re in bed. I think that was when I wanted to kill myself. I never drank, I never smoked, I never did drugs, and I was on massive morphine. I needed the drugs for the pain, but I could feel myself becoming addicted and I started to just kind of give up on life. I just lived … in between pain medication. I probably came pretty close to dying at that point. I remember at one point not being able to breathe and not caring.”

“There’s a lady I credit with saving my life, a physical therapist. She helped me to basically be able to get up, to get out of bed, and once I was able to do that, I was able to draw. And then… this crazy obsession took over. I began to draw for 15, 20 hours at a time, for days on end. Eating in bed, peeing into a tube, and drawing. And drawing.”

Sue’s book of flash (pre-done tattoo designs that showcase an artist’s style) chronicles this time. Knowing this, standard pieces of tattoo jargon like “born to lose” or “missing” take on hugely loaded meanings. She started drawing what would become one of her standard motifs: Vaguely Victorian-looking women with large, sad eyes, usually emerging from the mouth of a predatory animal. She calls them her version of the pink ribbon: In each one of them, Sue is the woman, peering out from the mouth of the disease consuming her. They take maybe two hours of actual tattoo time but are so loaded with design elements and labored over, they take weeks to draw.

“I decided I was going to 100 sheets of flash in two months. And that’s a lot. And that was all I did. And it kept me going. The more I drew, the more I could get back to work. Living with constant pain is not easy, and being on long-term chemo takes a mental and physical toll. So what I had gone through was still not preparation for what I was going to go through.”

After recovering from her initial surgery, Sue started radiation treatment and chemotherapy. But, except for the period where she was laid up in bed, she never stopped working. Ever. “I was so dedicated to this, through everything.”

It’s reductive to say that cancer isolates you, but it’s a unique, unfathomable kind of loneliness. As people process your disease and move past it in their own lives, they compartmentalize you and your pain, and end up inadvertently leaving you behind. “There’s no way that people can understand, and there’s also a point where they just don’t know how to react to it,” Sue explains. “And then they don’t react to it well, or at all. How many days in a row can you hear someone throwing up in the bathroom and still react to it with the same sympathy as they did the first time? couldn’t fire me, but at the same time, I just wasn’t the same person who started working there.”

The only time I hear any edge creep into Sue’s voice is when she talks about the anger. Not sadness, not acceptance, but, as she puts it, “Pure fury. I’m just f—in pissed off. I never drank, I never smoked, I never did drugs. I never did anything that would harm my body. And this took everything from me. I can’t have a kid. I’m old before my time. It took my looks. It took my body. It took my brain. It’s gonna take my eyes.”

“Twenty-seven percent of people in my condition live past five years. Zero percent live past ten. I just passed the five-year-mark, so I’m running on borrowed time. They say I’m doing okay, but I realize there are some things going wrong that I can’t really ignore. I’m really highly monitored, but I’m not worried about it. I’ve had a while to prepare for this.”

Sue’s usual rapid-fire patter slows. “The tattooing is more important to me than anyone can even realize. Because it’s my immortality. I don’t have a child. I will never anything of me that sustains past my death, except for these tattoos. I live for this. What you’re wearing is what I have.”

“People will come in for something small and innocuous and they’ll say, ‘Jeez, you’re really excited about this little thing,’ and I can’t say to them, ‘You have no idea what I went through to get back to this. To just being able to do this. It’s everything to me.”

“My life has been about people telling me you can’t do things. It’s people telling me, you’re a girl, you can’t tattoo; you’re a girl, you can’t be in the pit, it’s people telling me you’re doing it all wrong, we’re not gonna teach you, just give up. It’s people telling me, you owe this much money, just shut the doors, it’s people telling me, it’s illegal in this state, you can’t do that. You’re 15, you can’t get a tattoo. This cancer, this is the only thing that’s gonna beat me.”

“But at the same time, I hate the idea of fighting. Because it’s like you lost something. You know, ‘She fought the battle with cancer … ‘ I don’t like that. This is a part of me. There’s not a lot of understanding about what the BRCA gene is … it’s made this a part of me. I can’t really beat this. It’s in my DNA. It’s who I am.”

“It’s not even that you beat it, it’s that you get tired of fighting it. So I got sick of thinking about dying all the time. So as time went on, I just went f—in’ bananas and decided I was going to do whatever I wanted to, whenever I could. I started wearing rainbows and pink. I work, I draw, constantly. I want to be a better tattooer. I never want to stop improving. The art, the work, that’s my life. That’s how I’m choosing to define myself. As much as cancer is who I am, this is the bigger part of who I am, and it’s going to be what I leave.”