Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Power of Scars: Tattooing and Mastectomy Scars

Unable to have nipple reconstruction, this woman’s tattoo covers the entire reconstructed breast.  Floral and organic subjects work best for scar cover-up (Kakoulas, 2010).

An example of a full chest mural on a woman without reconstruction (Quigley, 2009).

I have chanced upon some remarkably resilient and enduring women in my life; they have suffered much but always manage to “man up,” and carry their burden with dignity and composure.  Through sickness, repeated painful treatments, and surgeries they have fought and thrive.  One such woman, Sharon, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32; one week later she was on the operating table for her first modified radical mastectomy, the removal of the entire breast and the lymphatic-bearing tissue in the armpit.  Sharon then underwent reconstruction, and radiation therapy.  This year she had to have her other breast removed and reconstructed.  Sharon has had her left nipple remodeled, but has not opted for the pigment tattooing.  She laughs and shows a sense of amusement when stating that the only tattoos she has were put on her as targets for her radiation therapy (S. Rees, personal communication, October 9, 2011).

Women’s feelings about their bodies after mastectomy are as diverse as the women themselves.  Sharon refused to let her new form affect her outlook on life or shake her confidence.  She defends herself from her scars with boldness and humor.  Other women are unable to dispose the power of their scars; to them they are a daily reminder of their suffering and loss.  In a society that sexualizes and eroticizes breasts, some women feel that their loss embodies the forfeiture of their femininity itself.  Certain women are either unwilling or unable to undergo reconstruction and are left with a flat field of a chest, or one that is deeply scared and malformed.  Increasingly, these women are turning to tattooing as a form of therapy and healing.  They are using art to divest their scars of power and taking their bodies back.

The loss of one’s breasts can deeply affect one’s body image, even after reconstruction.  Post-mastectomy, many women suffer from feelings of lost femininity, and issues with sexuality.  Some of these women are using tattooing to turn their scars into art, rich with symbolism of survival and regrowth.  Most women who get mastectomy tattoos never thought they would get tattoos, though some return later for work that is unrelated to their scars (Karras, 2011).  Kim Leach, of Phoenix Rising Tattoo in New York, works one Friday a month tattooing pigment on the reconstructed breasts of cancer patients.  Some of these patients later end up in her shop to cover scars left from by their surgeries (Gramza, 2010).  For the women who choose tattooing, a thing of embarrassment and pain is transformed into something beautiful that they want to share with others.

One woman who, due to serious complications, was left with no breasts and a severely scarred chest contracted Leach to create a mural of personal and healing symbols that covered her chest (Gramza, 2010).  This piece took a year to complete; the end result was something empowering that the woman will carry with her until she dies.  Tattooing scar tissue can be problematic; therefore it is important to choose an artist, like Leach, who has a keen understanding of what is involved.  The ink tends to blur, and fine straight lines are nearly impossible.  Twisting, flowing designs from nature tend to work well, as they can be manipulated to trace the line of the scar easily.  They also work well to draw the eye’s attention away from the scar.

Nobody can deny the therapeutic nature of art, and those of us with tattoos can certainly attest to the salutary affect tattoos can have on a person’s psyche.  Whether women who have undergone a mastectomy choose to have pigment restored, or opt for a scar cover-up, these tattoos are helping women to feel whole and powerful after a traumatic ordeal.  For those who are left with no breasts, just a pitch of scars, tattooing can help in the recuperation of identity, and womanhood.  Some people, like Sharon, seem to contain an indomitable spirit and pride, and need no physical help in maintaining themselves.  Others require visual markers to help their mind’s cope with suffering and an upset in identity.  One is neither better nor stronger than the other, it’s about recognizing what is needed to help oneself move on and live life.  Tattoos, much like scars, mark the road we have traveled.  We carry them to the end, and they remind us where we have been.  Most of us don’t get to choose our scars; but a tattoo is something that is truly yours, put on your body of your own volition, and therefore empowering.

Works Cited

Gramza, J. (2010, November 7). Tattoo artist helps breast cancer patients reclaim their identity. The Post-Standard.

Kakoulas, M. (2010, October 14). Beautiful mastectomy scar tattoo. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from needlesandsins.com: http://www.needlesandsins.com/2010/10/mastectomy-scar-tattoo.html.

Karras, C. (2011, August 6). First you cry...when mastectomy scars are transformed by tattoos. The Seatle Times.

Quigley, C. (2009, April 27). Mastectomy Tattoos. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Quigley's Cabinet: http://quigleyscabinet.blogspot.com/2009/04/mastectomy-tattoos.html.

1 comment:

  1. I just had a double mastectomy and am not doing the traditional nipple tattoo . i want something beautiful to cover my scars after my reconstruction is completed. I would love more information on the location and tattoo artist ...thank u