How a Gainesville Tattoo Artist is Helping Breast Cancer Survivors

I haven’t visited many tattoo shops in my life. In fact, I’ve only stepped foot in two — once to help my roommate get an adorable sunflower on her ankle and another time to add a little sparkle to my belly button.

The people were pleasant, but I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. As the least edgy non-tatted person ever, darkly lit parlors with heavy metal music blaring from the speakers make me feel out of place. When I started working on this article, I felt excited for the topic, but nervous about approaching a tattoo artist.

I arrived at Valkyrie’s, a local Gainesville tattoo shop, and I didn’t think I was in the right place. The atmosphere felt cozy and inviting. I couldn’t even begin to compare it to the stereotypical tattoo shops portrayed in pop culture. This may be part of the reason why breast cancer survivors go to Valkryie’s to cover their surgery scars – to symbolize the end of their journey.

According to the Mayo Clinic, breast cancer is cancer that forms in the cells of the breasts and is the second most common cancer (behind skin cancer). It occurs in both men and women, but women are more likely to develop the condition. While the mortality rate of breast cancer is declining, it‘s still fatal, requiring rigorous treatment. It’s estimated that women have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their lifetime, with chances increasing with age, according to the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute. For causes and risk factors of breast cancer, click here.

Surgery, either a preventative mastectomy or a lumpectomy, is a popular treatment option for women with early stage breast cancer or a high risk of developing it. Surgery scars are an intricate component of the breast cancer journey. For some, the scars represent the strength they have, while others see it as the last obstacle to returning to normality. As many as two-thirds of women are ashamed of their surgery scars and view them as grim reminders of their experience.

Josh Montiel of Valkyries Tattoo has helped some of these women. Throughout his 13-year career as a tattoo artist, he has left his mark on hundreds of people. In his seven years at Valkyrie’s, he has helped about 14 women love their breasts again, whether through artwork or realistic nipple tattoos to replace their natural ones removed during surgery.

The tattoo approach to nipple replacement has gained popularity, especially due to its cost effectiveness. It also can provide survivors with a breast similar to that before treatment.

This technique requires a lot of skill and experience with realism, which is one of the different styles artists can apprentice in.

Montiel completed his apprenticeship in Washington where he learned realism, tattoos without traditional lines, which allows him to shade a life-like tattoo. He uses this technique mainly to create portraits of people, but it also comes in handy for creating realistic nipples.

He has been able to provide this service to four women so far, and each one has deeply affected him. He tries to keep the appointment light, especially since the women he has tattooed were just like me and nervous about entering a tattoo shop. The survivors that he’s tattooed shared their stories with him, which he feels privileged to have heard.

Each one had a unique journey — some were completely surprised by the diagnosis, others had a long history of breast cancer and caught it early. For some women it was their first tattoo, others it was their 10th addition. All four of the women he did the realistic nipple tattoo for burst into tears when they looked in the mirror for the first time afterward.

“That is kind of the reaction most tattoo artists are looking for once it [the tattoo] is finished,” Montiel said. “Not that you want them to be sad, but the emotional impact makes me feel good as not only an artist, but as a person who can help them after all they’ve been through.”

These tattoos aren’t an easy feat, however. Tattoos are generally reserved for places where skin is taut and flat in order to preserve the quality and longevity. Surgical scars are often raised and heal differently, which means the quality of the tattoo may not stand the test of time. If you or a friend/family member is seeking this service, Montiel recommends waiting at least one year post surgery to get the tattoo in order to prevent the scar from bleeding or the ink from not holding as well. Flatter skin is necessary for the shading to produce the best effect possible.

Every woman is beautiful regardless if she has surgical scars or not, but these tattoos help people who have experienced breast cancer, which is a unique way to end that chapter of their lives. It isn’t about hiding the scars — it’s about turning something that once evoked so much fear and pain into a work of art. Or, in the case of the realistic nipple, trying to return to a state of external normalcy while preserving the internal empowerment from their journey.

Even though the risk of breast cancer is low in populations below the age of 40, it is still important as college women to know the symptoms and conduct self-examinations regularly. UF’s Student Healthcare Center provides an excellent guide on self-examinations and has a Women’s Health Clinic where you can receive gynecological services and breast examinations.