Tattoo Transforms Mastectomy Scars Into Personal Art for Breast Cancer Survivors

Tattooed botanical imagery can conceal cancer scars and can aid psychological recovery.
Tattooed botanical imagery can conceal cancer scars and can aid psychological recovery.

Surviving breast cancer does not have to mean living with a disfigured body. For some women, it means living with art. A creator of such living art is David Allen, a fine art painter and tattoo artist who transforms the bodies — and the lives — of women who have survived breast cancer.

Although women who undergo breast reconstruction after mastectomy may choose to have a nipple tattooed on the reconstructed breast, that is not the type of tattooing, or micropigmentation, that Mr Allen prefers. He feels that despite it being a trompe l'oeil image, a clinical tattooed nipple lacks character, fades rather quickly, and bears no relationship to the survivor whose body and mind have been altered by her disease.1, 2

Instead, this artist draws the eye away from the scarring and creates something elegant and beautiful. To do this, he turned to botanical imagery, finding that flowers, leaves, stems, and meandering branches are the most successful method of transforming a breast that has been altered and scarred by surgery. In the 10 years Mr Allen has been working with survivors, he has seen that as they move beyond illness and towards health the women personify the gentle change and growth symbolized by the flowering plants. Since the artist has created more than 140 tattoos of this type, the survivor community clearly embraces his art.

Handling Treated Skin

Mr Allen tells his clients to wait 1 year after surgery before seeing him to ensure that all scarring is thoroughly healed. He says that recently he has even been hearing from women before their operations. His clients often fly in from other countries just for the tattoo, but by the time they arrive he knows them quite well because he has spoken with them often on the phone, hoping to ascertain when they will be psychologically and physically ready.

At this point he knows the areas they want the tattoo to cover. The artist may also talk with a woman's oncologist or plastic surgeon because he is better able to plan his work if he knows details of the surgery and restoration. Often the women bring him images and operative reports.1

Mr Allen is a painter, and his style of tattooing evokes his art. His work is delicate and feminine. He uses a light hand and mixes the ink with water, as with watercolor. He does not use large bold lines, even though it is the traditional tattoo style and said to last longer; Mr Allen says that technique does not lend itself to cover scarring. “You can trick the eye and do without that. It's possible to be artistic and also cause minimal trauma. I use pointillism. Just tiny little dots. And it doesn't affect the skin as much as the traditional tattoo. After what the woman's skin has been through, I must be more gentle, more thoughtful,” he explains [D Allen, oral communication, February 17, 2017].  

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