Mums and Tats: from ick to maybe

Generally I find tats a turnoff. They just look threatening or like a mould-fest. And why do it? All the pain, and weeks of wrapping yourself in clingfilm to prevent infection, only to regret the whole thing in later years.

During lockdown however, I read a novel called The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng which inspired me to think otherwise. The lovers are bound by an agreement that the artist would tattoo his ultimate work of art on her back. I loved it, that she became his living breathing sculpture, just for them, to be taken to the grave.

 

It got me thinking about the bleak no-man’s-land that is my post-mastectomy, unreconstructed chest.  Despite my best efforts to rebuild other aspects of my life, this part of me has always has been a source of hurt, shame and loss. I refused reconstruction at the time as my first mastectomy was timed just after giving birth and I had maybe 4 weeks to recover from that before the chemo started up again. By the time it came back, 6 years later, there didn’t seem any point. 15 years later, what if I got some tats done and made this butchered part of me beautiful, with something shaded, delicate and nippled?

Googling breast tats, I found many women who had the balls to go online and share, mostly flowers and birds. But I wanted to put breasts back, trompe l’oeil, you know, like I’m a walking talking Roman fresco. I feared though that if I just went to a parlour and said ‘Gimme some boobs’, I might end up with Tomb Raider tits. I needed to show them exactly what I wanted. Which meant doing some research and making some decisions.

I had met the famous portrait painter Michael Taylor, and popped him a message asking if he might have some middle-aged nude sketches which might help me narrow down the possibilities. ‘Saggy but dignified’ is what I imagined for myself. Check him out, he’s an institution. https://www.mrtaylor.co.uk/ He most obligingly sent some ‘scrapings from a life class floor’ and I showed my friend N. ‘Why saggy?’ she asked. ‘You might as well go pert, no? Have the shape you want.’ We typed in ‘Breasts’. Like a couple of, well, I won’t say…

 

Hundreds of them. It felt wrong, dirty, weird. But in the pursuit of Art, anything goes, right? I tried ‘Renoir’ and that threw up some Bonnard nudes. I sent one to Michael who asked for a pic of the ‘canvas’  – my chest – my sacred place – and yet desecrated – so do I? – can I? – yes I did – a boomerang of me twisting just enough for him to see where the two long scars start and finish.  Because a double mastectomy is like two envelope flaps closed down.

Michael very kindly did some fact-finding at his local tattoo studio in Zummerzet. Creating an effect on paper is totally different to skin, with different challenges, limitations and rules. So he produced a digital image of the breasts, charmingly asymmetrical as you see, in a visual language that a body artist would understand. The deal was, a sketch for a breadboard – I have a board hoard and Michael has a thing about boards – and so we swapped.

Hopefully, when I have faced down my needle phobia and low pain threshold… this story will be continued… The thought of going topless on the beach and watching the double-takes is a MAJOR incentive!

My heartfelt thanks go to Michael for entertaining such a project and to Monica Costa for generously offering me a platform to air these strange personal journeys of discovery and healing.

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