It was the Beginning of 2009, and the reality of my mothers death from ovarian cancer was barely settling in when we got the letter from the Canadian Cancer Society that she was, in fact, BRCA1 positive. 2 days later I flew home to Calgary to find a letter from the same place, addressed to me, saying that it was important that I go get genetic testing also.
Canada does some things quite well, and they would not allow me to receive testing until I had spoken to a genetic counsellor and a genetic doctor, so that I was emotionally equipped to accept a positive test result. I am my mothers daughter, through and through, from her crooked smile to her no BS attitude and sometimes crass sense of humor. Anyone who knew her would agree. I just knew that result would be positive, but not in a positive way!
So when the counsellors told me that they often advise women my age to get preventative mastectomies, it was a no-brainer. I saw this as a "get-out-of-jail-free card". I joked with my friends that ‘I'll get a free boob job’ to hide the intense fear I felt about having my breasts removed. I lost close friends who couldn’t understand why I would ‘throw away perfectly good breasts for nothing’ and it became a very lonely road. I had some early diagnostics done and they found a large mass, which worried them. I knew it was just a matter of time until they saw the change that they were watching for. My choice to remove my breasts was an easy decision to make – but a hard one to live with!
I was interviewed on Calgary's CTV News and Global News, as a way to help raise awareness for other women going through the same thing, that my story may help them be brave enough to make a terrifying decision. That means that almost EVERYONE knew, which was also an easy choice to make but a hard one to live with.
Something I haven’t yet mentioned is my work. I've been tattooing professionally since 1996 and I absolutely love my job. It has always been the most important part of my life and I felt the calling to become a tattoo artist very young in life. This was solidified by the discovery of Otzi, the Iceman, found in the Otzal alps in 1992 with 61 tattoos on his 6500 year old body. All of these tattoos corresponded with now-proven major acupuncture points! That hooked me, and my fascination with tattoo culture and history has led every decision I’ve ever made.
After art school and hanging out in tattoo shops since 1989 (only 14 years old when I started drawing flash), I finally became a new tattoo artist in early 1996, at a time in Canada that there were only a couple women tattooing, and none tattooing to the level of the men that I admired, like John the Dutchman and Paul Jeffries. (I’ve now had the honor of working with all of my ‘idols’, the artists that I always looked up to). Eventually I designed business cards that said “not bad… for a GRRRL!”
Back to the future. In 2006, after 10 years of tattooing full-time, my mother received her ovarian cancer diagnosis. I was already feeling like there was something…. more for me. I lived an inspired life but still didn’t feel fulfilled inside. I worked at my dream job, had all kinds of artistic achievements and a fantastic clientele, but was also feeling quite empty inside…
So when I faced my own breast amputation I assumed there HAD to be SOMEONE in my field doing amazing realistic areola tattoos. I found the exact opposite of what I hoped to see. My own surgeons RECEPTIONIST! was doing them, with a graphic design circle template and absolutely no understanding of this ancient and sacred art that I loved with all my heart. They were basic circles, scarred even further by an inexperienced hand who didn’t seem to care at all about quality and actually said to me “better than nothing” flippantly. The thing that has broken my heart more than anything else in this journey is the accepted mediocrity amongst practitioners. Survivors everywhere are paying the price for this lack of commitment to excellence in this craft that I love with all my heart.
Geez, where’s Otzi when you need him?
So I decided to do something about it. I revisited my first attraction to tattooing and fascination with the ancient iceman from the alps, that by pure magic had been perfectly preserved in the ice so we can study that element of humanity and culture. Tattoos were used for healing. Before Otzi we thought acupuncture was only 2,000 years old. We humans know and understand so little...
Tattoos for healing. As the internet came about and people started populating it with their own research, more and more became available to learn. Shamans. Shamans did the tattooing. It was usually medicine women back then, not medicine men… Oh, I’m really hooked now. Priestesses were beautifully tattooed in matriarchal societies… Using this beautiful art of tattooing for healing people from trauma really inspired me like nothing else ever had or ever will.
I was working at my aforementioned dream job at this time, Smilin’ Buddha Tattoo, and knew I had to pursue this line of work fully. But, before I left, I asked the bossman if I could turn the basement into a private studio and hang a sign over the back door that said “Smilin’ Booba”. Buddha in the front, Booba in the rear. Well, I thought it was funny anyway…
I had a few tattoo artist friends by then that really ‘got it’ and I started traveling to them to have conversations about the deep beauty that our art form holds. I had a special connection with one woman, Keely Tackett in Tucson Arizona, whose work really spoke to my heart. One of my first ‘soul friends’, she helped me see that I had to pursue spirituality in tattooing. So I did. The few things that she has said to me over the years have changed the trajectory of my life and I honor her in almost everything I do because of it. We lost her a few years ago to – you guessed it – breast cancer… I was already deep into this work but the world losing her light just made me go all in.
The greatest gift that Keely ever gave me was when I watched her give a TV interview back in early 1999, and she said:
“I don’t really feel like I ‘create’ a tattoo, so much as ‘reveal’ it.”
Whoa. Soul-shaking words. The angels started to sing.
Back to 2009 right after my mother passed away. I’m starting to pursue this work obsessively. I set about to start learning everything I could about the way this tattooing was being done. What I learned horrified me, and inspired A.R.T. – the A.R.T. of Areola Restorative Tattoo. Here's my why:
– nipple tattoos were being done by people who did not understand body tattooing and biofeedback
– it was being done by tattooists who didn’t understand machines or needles and the effects they create
– They were using pigments designed to fade. There is NO WAY a survivor should have to endure that repeatedly
– These tattooists had zero interest in drawing, so NOTHING looked lifelike. Realism is the key to healing
– They also understood very little about doing artistic tattoos IN damaged tissue
– And they paid little to no attention to the emotional healing aspect, the most powerful and misunderstood element.
One day I was heartbroken for a client whose surgeon had (unethically, in my opinion) tattooed her nipples completely crooked. When she came to me, beautiful and totally unwilling to get close to a new lover since her husband had left her for a younger woman with 'real breasts'.
How can this be allowed to happen?!?! Why don’t they see what I’m seeing??
Why don’t they value their clients trust more? I know doctors take an oath to do no harm, and here they are, causing harm... “better than nothing”…
*Let Doctors, Doctor – And Tattooers, Tattoo!*
That made me SO MAD, but I had not yet become one of ‘these women’ until my own nipple tattoos were botched, by a cosmetic nipple tattoo TRAINER! That really hurt me, and even worse, that woman has gone on to spread rumours about me to escape accountability for her work!!! This is NOT the path to healing.
I was trying to escape Otzi’s proverbial tap on my shoulder for action when I woke up at about 4 am the next morning, sat bolt upright in my bed gasping for air with the work “BOOK” coming through my mouth.
And two weeks later there was a book in front of me. No kidding.
It was all a blur. It basically created itself. Wait, what? Hold on a second. There’s a freaking BOOK in-front of me!?! What the heck am I supposed to do with THIS?? What just happened? Then the doubt floods in. The fear of judgement. The fear of failure. I had to put that all aside and just focus on the message – We must do better. Here’s how.
I just shared some basic art school 101 tips about contrast and depth. Some history, starting with Otzi of course, how hard it actually is to work with scar tissue and the importance of learning MORE about it before working on compromised tissue. Ok. Problem solved. Now we got everyone drawing! Sweet Hallelujah. Turning pain into purpose! Here we go!
The really cool byproduct of this book was that I had to draw nipples to show them how. So, one afternoon I asked a few of my brazen girlfriends to come to my studio so I could take close-up photos of their nipples for reference for the book. They giggled and happily lifted their shirts for my mission. I HAD to use real nipples for reference, of course. I did some drawings then made them digital because I did 100% of this book myself. I put the nipple drawings on a page just like an old-school tattoo shop shows off their designs, thus the first 'nipple FLASH sheet' was born! Diagrams to show colours and styles! Survivors can choose!
Now that the drawings were digital, I got them printed into temporary nipple tattoos that I now call NIPPLEBACKS.
Hilarious, right? Missing something? Heres your NIPPLEBACK. tsk tsk tsk...
But they were still using fading pigments, the curse of the 'disappearing nipple'. This is of course very hard on a survivors self-esteem. So I started talking to pigment makers about making a permanent line just for areola and none of them saw the need. When my protege, Samantha Rae, said she wanted to get involved with A.R.T. I said – “solve this pigment problem and you’re in”. And she did! We created the worlds first permanent pigments for areola. Another problem solved. The next thing we did was invent the worlds first scarred practice skin, which are also the first to represent every ethnicity and skin tone! I wrote yet another book showing tattooists how to achieve depth and texture, and finally, I just announced the worlds first needle sets specifically for areola restorative tattooing, designed for pro's to do their best work in any skin condition!
But I’m not here to promote these accomplishments. I’m actually here to tell you to chase your dreams, no matter what.
I’m here to encourage you to find a silver lining to your own loss and struggles. Got lemons?? Make some lemonade and share it with EVERYONE! The hardest part for me is the gossip and rumours I've faced from other tattooists that I have helped in their career - the toxic feminine trait of competition, I guess... The emotional toll that this amputation takes on a woman is astounding. So much of society’s attention is fixated on breasts. Thats why there are so many women getting those toxic breast implants. We have to fix this. It’ll take all of us. The rise of the divine feminine!
This obsession with A.R.T. was the way I grieved the losses of the most important women in my life and my own breasts. For an artist, this is the creative process. We process emotions through creation. We can turn it all into anything we want. I thought, this is just the ugliest experience, how do I make it the most beautiful.
So, back to my story – My own breast reconstruction. Which I just lost to the allergan implant recall. My surgeon strongly assured me that they are completely safe and I was heavily warned against researching implants as it could be misleading and cause me to change my mind... I had had my breasts removed to save my life, and now I had a problematic medical device that could take my life. This is not what I signed up for!
I had problems since day 1, and my surgeons receptionist/tattooist completely marginalized my concerns and refused to book me in to address my concerns. I’m pretty sure she didn't have the authority to make that decision, but here we are. I followed the explant movement and BII – Breast Implant Illness. It all started to make sense. I have since explanted and gone completely flat-chested. I feel better and stronger than I have in years. Who needs breasts anyway!!
I have been blessed with incredibly amazing clients, and we have conversations about the downside of breast reconstruction. We share personal stories and we connect deeply. I am not alone.
No-one is as ‘strong’ as they appear, and it is a lonely road. And I really miss my mom.
This is how my own brokenness helped me heal. This is how I turned my pain into my purpose to help others heal.
I think Otzi would be proud.
The scar is the gold…