Kerry Allison says that in tattoo artist Anna Garvey she knew she had found 'the one. I feel hugely grateful that she could do this for me' / Roel Driesen

Amanda Cashmore talks to women who are using tattoos to cover up mastectomy scars and in the process taking a renewed pride in their appearance

Scars are a reminder of a time that our skin was damaged. In the case of medical scars, they can be a slap in the face for people who have been through a trauma – every time they look in a mirror. 

Tattoo artists have been offering respite from scars for years now, and Britain has seen increasing numbers of them on our streets – in 2014, Experian reported a 173 per cent increase in tattoo parlours over 10 years. But what is it like to be the person tattooed, and from the other perspective, the tattoo artists? And in what ways can a tattoo artist heal you?

Lucy Lyus, the information manager for Mind, the mental health charity, explained that every person is different in how they regard their scars. "Some people find it helpful to mark their recovery from a physical or mental health problem as it can help with their feelings of self-esteem or confidence. It could be something physical such as a tattoo or body piercing, but it could also be something else related to their lifestyle, like taking up a new hobby or learning a new skill.” 

Kerry Allison, 43, was given her diagnosis of breast cancer three days before her 40th birthday. Reconstruction was not an option for Kerry, and she was devastated to find out she would never have the same chest as before her cancer. “I came away utterly dispirited. I was so upset... You go through all your treatment, you’re looked after, and then you’re sort of spat out at the other end. You’re left saying ‘what do I do now?'”

Right from the off, Kerry says that she knew that her tattoo artist was ‘'the one'’. “You spend a lot of time on a very intimate part of your body for a very intimate reason. I feel a conection to her – and I feel hugely grateful that she could do this for me.

Once the six-hour-long procedure was done, Kerry felt different immediately. Before her tattoo, she was unwilling to let her partner, Roel, see her undress – but now she has no anxiety over showing her tattoo. She tells me simply: “It did everything that I needed it to.”

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Kerry Allison:  'It did everything that I needed it to' (Roel Driesen)

Liz Howley was 65 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and five years after her recovery she decided to tattoo her scar. She says that the tattoo “suggested a new beginning”. Ten years later, Liz is matter of fact about the pain of the procedure, explaining that it was, “nothing worse than your worst dental treatment”.

She chose a floral tattoo, and was delighted with the result, she “couldn’t wait to get home and look at it. It made me feel like a new woman.”

Nowadays, Liz tells me that she’s not shy about her body at all – in fact she’s a lingerie model for bras designed for women who have had mastectomies. She says if it helps people come to terms with their illness or scars, she’s happy to help.

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Liz Howley says her tattoo made her feel like a new woman (Scott Taylor)

Mastectomy scars are a real test to cover with traditional tattoos – the artist wants to make the person proud of their body, and it’s a creative process of finding something to suit them.

Tota Volpe-Landi is a tattooist at the Happy Sailor in London. She tells me how wonderful it is to watch women change before her eyes as she covers their mastectomy scars: “Seeing some of the ladies looking at themselves, and feeling fine. After the hell that they went through, they’ve taken back what they’ve lost.”

“You hear the story, and it’s so close to home – I’m 49, breast cancer can happen. I’ve lost friends to it, so it is emotional. It’s not pleasant work but it’s very rewarding.”

Of course, body art tattoos are just one facet of helping someone recover from illness. Medical tattoos are another, cosmetic rather than artistic, form of tattoo, which camouflage the scars rather than tattooing colourful art over them.

Claire Louise Willis practises permanent makeup in Weymouth, Dorset. She explains the importance of small tattoos to replace eyebrows on women who have lost them to chemotherapy. “As soon as you put that structure back, it takes years off them. It frames the eyes and they get that definition back to their face again.” 

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Permanent make-up can help women who might have lost their eyebrows through chemotherapy

Claire also specialises in nipple tattoos, and explains that having a nipple can be essential for making a woman feel normal again: “The surgeon will recreate a breast. But without a nipple sat on the end of it, a breast looks like a mound. Before they have this work done they’re quite emotionally detached from their breast – and they don’t feel embarrassed exposing them anymore.''

“When I tattoo this nipple back on, I can see them going a bit coy and a shy about them, which is the way that they should feel! It means that they’re reconnecting with them as breasts.”

Claire goes on to talk about a woman who’s husband had not touched her breasts since her mastectomy. After she had a nipple tattooed on, they both began crying. 

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Creating the nipple with permanent make-up helps women to reconnect with their breasts again

“They’ve had so much taken away from them – they’ve often lost an income. I’ve had clients who’ve lost their marriages, I’ve had people lose their homes because they couldn’t afford their repayments, and then they’re losing vitally important things off their bodies. This gives them that back.”

Burns are another ailment that tattooists are asked to cover. Rae Denham is a medical tattooist based in Harley Street, and previously worked in an NHS burns and plastics unit. She clarifies that medical tattooists use pigment, rather then the standard tattooing ink, which breaks down over time but works well on damaged and scarred skin. Her treatment is again trying to make the skin look normal, rather than trying to cover the scar with colourful art.

Burn scars are slightly more complicated than other tattoos – the skin is damaged and more fragile. It can be more difficult to insert colour-matching pigment, and the process is slower. 

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Before: the burn scar is difficult to conceal ....(Rae Denham Medical Tattooist )
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And after: medical tattooists will use pigment rather than ink  (Rae Denham Medical Tattooist)

Rae tells that this is specialist work: “I wouldn’t let somebody who hadn’t done a lot of that kind of work, and worked in hospitals, to do it because you could tear the skin – you could be putting another trauma on to what is already a trauma. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

While Rae says she doesn’t feel nervous about tattooing such important scars, she says she feels a connection with every one of her scar patients. “You get to know that person and it’s a journey – it’s not like they walk into the clinic and then they go away.

“You don’t need to know everything that’s happened to them, but you do find out about them and you get to know them over time. There is always that conection, and you are responsible for that outcome.”­

For care, support and information call Breast Cancer Care free on 0808 800 6000 or visit breastcancercare.org.uk

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