Painted perspectives: using tattoos to heal

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Tattoos are more than just decorative body art. For many women, they are an essential part of post-surgical care.

“It allows artistic expression and helps them take ownership of their bodies,” said Doctor Heather Richardson, 44. She currently works at the Bedford Breast Center and has worked with breast cancer patients for 14 years.

In addition to mastectomy survivors, cosmetic tattoos are also used to cover up burns, scars from self-harm and to “overwrite” unwanted tattoos. Charities, such as Survivor’s Ink, are dedicated to matching sex trafficking survivors with tattoo artists who can help erase or cover traumatic tattoos they were forced to get.

“Fewer than five percent of my patients request it, but I think it shows a trend that people are embracing tattoos in general,” Richardson said. “It’s usually people who choose to see the beauty in what they’ve gone through.”

While there are no statistics on the number of women who say they’ve gotten a tattoo to as a result of a surgical scar or mastectomy, local tattoo artists say they are seeing more and more clients who want tattoos to cover scar tissue, recreate areola, which are usually removed during surgery, and to celebrate their health.

A study conducted by Fox News reported that 47 percent of women under 35 have tattoos while only 4 percent of women over 65 have ink.

“It’s pretty common to get tattoos to cover scars. The human body is not perfect and we all have stories to tell,” said Sara Lou Bowery, 46, a tattoo artist at Incognito Tattoo.

Leading the way

Los Angeles tattoo artists are leading the way in paramedical and post-operative tattoos thanks to innovative artists working alongside medical professionals.

While many traditional tattoo artists cover up scars with their work, some tattoo artists have chosen to specialize in post-surgical art. Post-surgical tattoos differ from traditional tattoos in that they only penetrate to the second layer of skin and use non-iron oxide dyes so they’re less likely to fade.

“Cancer has been a part of my life for a long time and knew I wanted to do something to give back,” said Holly Fenehet, 34, owner of The Gilded Lily, a medical tattoo studio in Santa Clarita.

“There’s a lot of emotion associated with it…it’s to help the ladies feel confident and regain a sense of normalcy,” said Fenehet. “It’s the last step in moving forward in the new life they have after cancer. Nippple and areola tattoos help them regain that femininity and self-confidence.”

Fenehet specializes in re-creating realistic nipples and areolas post-mastectomy and tattooing freeform, artistic pieces to cover up scars and other unwanted markings. She explained that there is very little information readily available about how to work with irradiated and scarred skin. Fenehet added that she practiced by tattooing nipples and areolas on herself, she currently has 16, and on her husband.

Fenehet also works with her clients to develop custom post-surgical tattoos. She gets requests to create seashell or lace bustiers as a form of mastectomy cover-up and is currently working on a colorful abstract design for a patient. Most of the women she sees for post-mastectomy designs don’t have any other tattoos, she said, and “are not who you would expect to get inked.”

“One of my patients was an 80-year-old grandmother who wanted to get tattoos after breast cancer,” Fenehet said. “She kept saying, ‘I don’t care if no one sees this for the rest of my life, I’m doing this for me.’”

Ruth Swissa, 51, a medical tattoo artist, echoed the same sentiment. She got her start in permanent makeup and moved into the medical tattoo industry over ten years ago. Swissa explained that working with scars can be a challenge because the skin often reacts differently to ink and that mixing colors to match skin tones can be a time-consuming project, she describes her work as a combination of science and art.

“When people get medical tattoos, it’s vanity – no doubt about it – they want to feel whole and complete,” Swissa said. She describes how one woman explained that getting a post-mastectomy tattoo helped her see herself as a “survivor” rather than a “victim of breast cancer.”

Swissa focuses on creating natural looking nipples and areolas for breast cancer survivors, making eyebrows for people with alopecia (hair loss), and covering up scars and burns. She even created a line of temporary areola and nipple tattoos that she hands out to oncologists, so they can tell their patients that medical tattoos are an option. Swissa explained that she aims to create natural looking features rather than disguise scars with other designs.

“What we do for them is huge, it’s just huge,” Swissa said. “It’s not just a tattoo, it’s a medical tattoo – there’s a big difference.

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