Why tattoos are more than just body art

In Breast Cancer Awareness month, much will rightly be made of the importance of grooming for some patients, and of the power of a well-cut wig to restore privacy. But there are lesser-known beauty treatments with a more lasting ability to help heal the trauma of breast cancer.

London cosmetic tattoo artist Nez Hasan spends much of her time restoring the naturally thinning or overplucked brows of healthy women (myself included – I trust no one else), with microblading – painlessly scoring each individual “lash” into skin for an effect lasting 18-24 months. But the work she loves most is with chemotherapy patients. With their treatment course usually scheduled in a hurry, with little time to plan, Hasan prioritises their appointments – working after hours if necessary – so she can create new brows with the existing ones as guide. “That way, I can prevent the shock of total brow loss as hairs falls out,” she says. She can also replace lost brows from scratch – trickier, but still extraordinarily effective and barely detectable as unnatural.

Three years ago, Hasan’s love of this important work led her to train as one of a small number of experts specialising in permanent trompe l’oeil tattoos of nipples and areolas, after their removal in a partial or full mastectomy. Nipple tattoos – her favourite – are usually done about 12 months after surgery, when the immune system has recovered and scars are fully healed (though Hasan will sometimes use microneedling techniques to flatten scars before tattooing). This involves painstakingly drawing on 3D photorealistic areolas with black, brown, red and white inks.

She includes variants in surface and tone, even small wrinkles in the skin, matching a tattooed nipples to its untouched sister on the other breast. The effect for many patients is life-changing. Hasan frequently sees cancer patients pro bono and keeps a box of treasured letters of gratitude for her service.

Some cancer survivors, however, feel so profoundly changed that rather than concealing their journey, they want to celebrate it instead. My own tattoo artist, Rebecca Vincent, has covered many a post-mastectomy chest with botanical designs. She, like Hasan, regards it a great privilege to be part of someone’s recovery. One woman asked Vincent for a riot of hibiscus flowers over her post-surgery chest, because she “wanted something beautiful to grow from it”, rather than something unfriendly. Vincent says: “This work is more than decoration – it’s reclamation.”