Beauty Through Body Art: Mastectomies & Body Tattoos

These days, there's a lot of talk about mastectomies - the surgical removal of entire breasts - to the extent that at times, the process is made to seem commonplace or even easy. But it's not. Mastectomies can be a life-saving procedure for women diagnosed with or at risk of developing breast cancer, but the scars they leave behind are both physically and psychologically profound. 

Breast tattoos are one of the most beautiful, optimistic ways to show self-love following mastectomy. Serving as both adornments and declarations of courage, read on to discover one of our favorite artists' inspiration behind the practice.

Photography by Gigi Stoll, Courtesy Pink via New York Times5 

Surgically removed breasts may or may not turn out the way we’d like, but regardless of the outcome, they're still exactly that – modified body parts, often fraught with life-long issues, complications, and maintenance. And while some women are lucky to have their nipples and skin spared during mastectomy, most are not – meaning for those who elect to have reconstructive surgery, their breasts are nipple-less. For these and many other women, having tattoos drawn on their post-mastectomy breasts can be a powerful way to reclaim a little bit of what's been lost.1 

The talented tattoo artist, Vinnie Myers, has been on our radar – he specializes in creating the illusion of a three-dimensional nipple and areola. First approached by a local plastic surgeon, Myers was known for his realistic tattoos. But when he joined forces with the medical world and breast cancer patients, he wasn’t prepared for how challenging tattooing nipples would be. Not to mention, the overwhelmingly positive psychological impact it would have on his clients.2  

With a growing demand for three-dimensional nipples, Myers has now assembled a full team of artists in his Maryland-based studio just outside of Baltimore. One artist, Paul Bessette says, ”It may appear easy to do one type of tattooing multiple times a day, every day. But there’s a completely different stress level. There’s a lot more at stake here than in a lot of cases, psychologically and physically. All tattoos are pretty stressful because you’re changing someone’s life permanently, and it should be taken that seriously. In this case, there’s something substantially more spiritual.”3 

Many women forego nipple tattoos for more embellished or meaningful imagery. Sometimes, it's an effort to conceal skin damaged or scarred in treatment or surgery. But most of the time, tattooing is a way to bring adornment, and even prayer, to a part of the body that’s been traumatized. This goes for women who elect not to reconstruct their breasts as well. In both cases, decorative tattoos add beauty and love to an area of the body that has faced significant pain and loss. And the process of designing the tattoo is often affirming and empowering as well.   

One of the hardest parts of receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is the pressure one can feel to quickly make decisions about treatment. There often isn’t enough time to grieve the removal of body parts or aspects of one’s shape. Even though reconstruction technologies have dramatically improved to manage scarring and create more life-like representations, the results are always a substitute for something that has been lost – both physically and emotionally. This is why the work of Vinnie Myers and his team is a true gift to women. Providing a new means of defining one’s body, breast tattoos enables patients and survivors to show self-love and ultimately, help them heal. #beautyofchange  

"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars." – Khalil Gibran