Tattoo art transforms physical and emotional scars.
Posted November 7, 2019
Perhaps three decades ago I encountered a black-and-white poster in a bookstore that mesmerized me. In the collaboration between photographer Hella Hamid, graphic designer Sheila de Bretteville, and poet, author, and healer Deena Metzger entitled Tree , Metzger’s bare torso, uplifted arms, and smiling face stretch up triumphantly toward the sky. More arresting to me than her easy nakedness and beatific expression was the image of a curving, leafy bough that traced the mastectomy incision where her right breast had been. An accompanying text proclaimed, in part: “There was a fine red line across my chest where a knife entered, but now a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart.” 1
This poetic and deep reclaiming of a post-mastectomy body struck me at the time as profoundly and uniquely creative and brave. This stance has been echoed in ensuing artful endeavors such as artist and model Matuschka’s portrait featuring her mastectomy scar, which appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine in 1993, 2 and fashion photographer David Jay’s Scar Project, 3 which includes large-scale portraits revealing the surgical aftermath of young breast cancer survivors, both male and female.
Tattoos have been a feature of breast reconstruction surgery, whereby removed nipples are created with skin grafts and areolas are drawn on and colored with pigment. For those for whom skin grafting is difficult (due to irradiated skin) or unwanted (due to a wish to avoid additional surgery), medical tattoos have produced satisfactory, but until more recently, not very realistic results. Newer pigmenting methods borrow from tattoo artistry techniques and use shading to produce the illusion of depth and projection. 4
Now, mastectomy tattoos are being used as a transformative tool to create beauty and agency that combat feelings of disfigurement and loss of control. Evocative, personalized work by tattoo artist David Allen is featured in recent campaigns related to Breast Cancer Awareness Month 5 and is reaching the medical community through articles in top medical journals. 6 He notes, “the women I see want the opportunity to turn themselves into something that transcends an imitation of what they used to look like.” 6 His techniques are sensitive to the insults that the skin and psyche have already been through; he uses smaller needles, a pointillist style, and organic imagery that holds up well over time and symbolizes regeneration. The depictions are designed with much input from breast cancer patients and often in consultation with their physicians, sometimes in advance to plan the location of incisions.
Tattoos were once more rarely seen in North American mainstream culture. Previously, psychological accounts depicted wearers as masochistic, faddish, or preoccupied with decoration; others now suggest that tattoos can be viewed as a mode of communicating, expressing the psyche, and feeling whole by linking one’s inner and outer personas. 7 Grace Lombardo, filmed through her tattoo process as part of the aforementioned Breast Cancer Awareness campaign notes, “you lay down on the table with this body that had been mutilated, and wasn’t yours anymore, and then you stand up and you look in the mirror, and suddenly it’s covered by fine art.” 5 It also seems that creating a beautiful exterior helps heal the interior.
2. Peterson, P. (2018, August 15). The Times Magazine cover that beamed a light on a movement. The New York Times, p. A2.
4. Halvorson, E. G., Cormican, M., West, M. E., & Myers, V. (2014). Three-dimensional nipple-areola tattooing: a new technique with superior results. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 133, 1073-1075.
6. Allen D. (2017). Moving the needle on recovery from breast cancer: The healing role of postmastectomy tattoos. JAMA, 317, 672–674.
7. Buss, L. & Hodges, K. ( 2017).Marked: Tattoo as an expression of psyche. Psychological Perspectives, 60, 4–38,