In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in October, Yahoo Lifestyle will be publishing first-person accounts of those who have been affected by the disease, which will be responsible for the deaths of an estimated 40,920 women (and nearly 500 men) this year. All women have about a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of developing some form of the breast cancer. Awareness, screenings, and early detection can save lives.
WARNING: Photos depicting breasts with authentic-looking nipple tattoos are ahead.
After mastectomy surgery for breast cancer, most women no longer have nipples and areolas. There are a few exceptions: Some women are candidates for nipple-sparing mastectomy in which they can keep their original nipple and areola (this is the kind of surgery Angelina Jolie had in 2013), and others may opt for expensive and extensive nipple-reconstruction surgery in which a plastic surgeon creates a new “nipple” out of skin from elsewhere on a woman’s body.
But for the vast majority of women, even if they go on to get natural-looking breast implants post-mastectomy, their remade pair will be blank in front — just like a Barbie doll’s.
Now a growing wave of tattoo artists is offering help in the form of intricate, lifelike, and permanent nipple art. “An artistically-created tattoo can give a survivor a sense of wholeness [that] nothing else can,” Stacie-Rae Weir, an expert medical tattoo artist in Calgary, Alberta, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Weir knows this firsthand. In 2012, after her mother died from ovarian cancer and Weir found out she was positive for a BRCA mutation, she had a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. When she looked into the nipple tattooing that was available at the time, she didn’t like what she found — a lack of formalized training for artists, inks that quickly faded, and no regulation.
“I’d been a fine artist and tattoo artist for over 15 years, and when I saw there were no good tattoo options, I decided to use my expertise to change that,” she says. Weir has since trained dozens of artists around the world through her Areola Restorative Tattoo (A.R.T.) training program, and she has gathered a cadre of proven post-mastectomy tattooers she calls the Nipple Squad.
Not just anyone can join her squad, she says. Because of the scarring and the intricacy of creating three-dimensional-looking contours, the work is extremely challenging. “Once skin and underlying tissue have been reconstructed, it behaves in a quite volatile fashion,” Weir explains. “Keloid scarring must be tattooed very differently from irradiated skin, and sometimes they are side by side. Tattooers really need to know their stuff to get that ink in right without overworking it. But if they know what they are doing, it can be magical.”
She continues, “Once those ‘two little circles’ are back on the body, the woman finds a sense of peace she didn’t even know was missing.”
One of the biggest challenges Weir had to figure out how to overcome was fading. “Standard medical and cosmetic tattooists have always used cosmetic pigments, which are designed to change and fade to make room for the face’s aging process,” she explains. “I knew that this was unacceptable in restorative tattooing, so my protégé, Samantha Rae, and I worked with World Famous Ink to create the world’s first permanent set designed specifically for areola work. The ‘Pink Ribbon Series’ pigments are vegan and very safe for use on people who have endured cancer treatments.”
Before this special ink was developed, Weir explains that tattoo artists either used pigments that had natural colors but unreliable results, or bright colors that didn’t look natural. “You can imagine that survivors require true, lasting realism to feel whole and complete and ready to move on,” she says.
She adds: “A tattoo should lighten about a shade per decade, like our natural pigmentation. But it should never totally disappear, like some of those medical tattoos still tend to do. A skilled specialist is key to long-term satisfaction and emotional healing.”
The realism of some of the work by Weir and other artists is truly mind-blowing. That’s in part because Weir closely studied real nipples. “I wrote a workbook for tattooers,” she says. “To explain realism techniques, I had to draw nipple diagrams. To do that, I needed reference images. So I asked my consenting friends if I could take pictures of their nipples!” she says. “They thought it was hilarious.”
Weir also used her friends’ nipple pictures as references for hand-drawn temporary nipple tattoos called Nipplebacks, which she sells on her website ($25 per dozen). Some are superrealistic, while others are shaped like hearts or stars or are “pierced.” (See how they work). “I wished I had them after my mastectomy. That nipple-free stage is a tough one to endure,” she says.
The artist had her own permanent set of nipples and areolae tattooed a couple of years ago by Rae, her protégé, who now has her own tattoo studio doing both decorative work and nipple tattooing.
“I love that we can use our powers for good, helping someone to feel healthy, whole, beautiful, and complete again,” Weir says. “I love connecting with my community of women and men who have been through so much. They come to see me when they are ready to celebrate the finish line of the hard times they have passed.”
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