Breast Cancer Survivors Find Strength in Tattoo Art
‘Bringing beauty to a place that was razed’
Karen Richards loves going topless. Pretty much any opportunity, the shirt is coming off. For years after her double mastectomy, she couldn’t even look in the mirror. “The scars were the first thing I saw,” she says. “It wasn’t me.” Now her chest is a piece of art, the platform for a swirling, vibrant tattoo that covers her scars, both emotional and physical.
“I see a totally different person when I look in the mirror,” says Richards, 56, a software development program manager. “I’m not just cancer girl. I see this beautiful, transformative, catharsis of who I was and emerging as something new.”
Richards was brought into the tattoo world by P.ink, a Colorado-based group focused on connecting breast cancer survivors with tattoo artists. Started by service designer Noel Franus, after his sister-in-law, Molly, confronted the realities of a double mastectomy, the three-year-old group wants to “provide ideas and inspiration” for women. Typically, breast cancer patients have two choices — reconstruction or no reconstruction.
“Nobody was talking about this sort of thing,” says Franus, who enlisted his brand and marketing pals to help develop a site and spread the word. “We’re happy to provide a third choice.” P.ink’s biggest project is the annual P.ink Day, when artists around the country offer their services to breast cancer survivors for free, putting down ink for the cause. This year P.ink Day will be celebrated in 14 cities on different days in October, including New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle. Last year 48 breast cancer survivors received tattoos.
‘When you have reconstruction it never feels part of you, it feels like it is attached to your body’
Franus has seen firsthand how a tattoo can change a survivor’s perspective. Ink can create personality and pride, helping women reconnect with their sense of identity. “It’s a very empowering thing,” he says. The group is small, but he hopes to expand the outreach internationally, train artists and raise money to help subsidize tattoos, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $2,000, depending on the intricacy. More than 100 artists are working with the group.
“We’re using people’s skills in a way they had not been able to before,” Franus says.
Working with breast cancer survivors takes some out-of-the box skills for a tattoo artist, says Friday Jones, the artist who worked with Richards. For one, there is technical side of dealing with scar tissue and damaged skin. “Bringing beauty to a place that was razed,” that’s the biggest challenge, says Jones, who appeared on Oxygen’s series “Tattoos After Dark.” But the artist is also “engaged at getting into the head of the client,” helping them work through the myriad of issues, especially for women who may have smirked at a tattoo in the past. “There’s a bit of hand holding,” says Jones.
Jones has found her own inspiration from the women coming through her shop. Fifty percent of her clients are mastectomy survivors and she is helping organize the first P.ink Day in New Orleans this year. Her designs for survivor have ranged from sea dragons to full warrior chest plates. “To be able to provide images for women who definitely have had to fight, that’s so fun,” she says.
Richards felt disconnected from her body after the surgery. “When you have reconstruction it never feels part of you, it feels like it is attached to your body,” she says. The tattoo created by Jones intertwines images of her three cats, columbine flowers and the moon (she’s a Cancer). “It feels like part of me,” she says. “It brought me back. Now I feel like it’s really me.”
Kevin Brass is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Financial Times and Ozy.com. He is the author of The Cult of Truland, a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.