Nearly six hours and two tattoo sessions later — her tattoo is complete. But for 62-year-old Carmen White, this means more than artwork; it eliminates the scars that often remind her of her battles with breast cancer.
In 2022, nearly 287,850 women and 2,710 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. From those scars, a tattoo artist is now striving to help create symbols of power, strength and resilience.
White underwent a mastectomy surgery in 2018, but as the days went by, her scars continued to stand out. With vertical and horizontal scars across her body from a previous cancer diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease, plus the mastectomy, she often wore clothes and bathing suits that hid her scars, and started partaking in yoga and meditation to get her mind off the changes to her body.
But, as time passed, her regimen proved not enough.
“I was grateful I was alive,” she said. “But you want to be as much as yourself as you were before.”
A meeting with a plastic surgeon would change everything, however. The idea of a tattoo seemed unimaginable to White, but soon she would embark on her first-ever tattoo with scar tattoo specialist Friday Jones.
“When you have to constantly be reminded of your past situation … it brings you down,” White said. “You’ve recovered internally. But, at the same time, even though they’re battle scars, you would rather they be beautiful battle scars.”
White recalled sitting in a private Manhattan-based office listening to the tranquil jazz music in the background as Jones began her work.
The pair collaborated on a symbolic piece. Now roses — symbolizing the Roses of Sharon in the bible, which embody beauty — cover her chest. White said several thorns are sprawled across her torso to represent the physical pains she endured for months. With the artwork complete, she said the piece saved her emotionally and physically, creating a new mindset for her to live with.
“I can look at myself, and now I see myself as a warrior,” White said. “[The tattoo] is not only letting me be myself, but it’s letting me be better than I was before.”
As a tattoo artist, Jones said the tattoos become psychologically soothing for the survivors. Her work is seen across the world, she even recently worked with a survivor in the Netherlands. She said this kind of therapy distracts the eye and the mind away from the trauma and creates a feeling of power, significance and beauty.
Beginning her career in 1991, Jones aimed to create a path for women in the tattoo industry. Jones was one of two women to work at Mark Mahoney’s Shamrock Social Club tattoo parlor in Hollywood. She also helped legalize tattooing in Montenegro and opened its first legal tattoo shop, Tattoo Montenegro.
In 2009, Jones opened her eyes to the scar tattoo market after creating a piece for a cancer survivor from Los Angeles. After connecting with the woman, Jones designed a mermaid piece — creating sea shells on her chest. That experience turned her focus to postoperative tattoos — including 3D nipple tattoos, areola repigmentation pieces and illustrative scar therapy.
She noted some of the obstacles of this art, including topographical difficulties of tattooing on the skin and unsmooth surfaces. However, she said after 20 years this type of art sparked a new passion for tattooing.
“It’s a challenge and it makes it even more of an art piece working together with the trauma and with the victim,” Jones said. “That’s what keeps me invigorated and wanting to participate in the industry still, and it’s so optimistic.”
With a majority of her clients being first-timers, she said it comes with some hurdles. She said she helps assist with tackling fears of pain, conversations with friends and family, and the stress of having a tattoo.
“It’s a matter of managing people’s expectations, introducing them to the culture in a kind but realistic way,” Jones said.
At a recent Amsterdam Tattoo Convention, Jones said she had the opportunity to showcase her skills in front of thousands. After six hours, Jones completed a piece for a young breast cancer survivor. The artwork consisted of an array of flowers, specifically apple blossoms, to symbolize life and her relationship with her grandmother and friend, who died of breast cancer.
“When she looks in the mirror, that’s when we all lose it when they get that profound shock and awe of their own power and beauty,” Jones said.
Now, Jones is expanding her ventures with Medaille Trust in London, helping sex traffic victims and survivors with pimp tattoos. She said working with people on their physical and emotional scars is a different type of fulfillment.
“There’s the person that looks in the mirror every day going, ‘I hate my body, I hate myself,’ and then this tattoo really changes that perspective,” she said. “It suddenly gave my work meaning. I don’t think you could ask for more from life than having a purpose.”
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