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P.ink, an abbreviation of Personal Ink, was founded in 2012 as a platform to connect breast cancer survivors with tattoo artists. It presents itself as a ‘third option’; open to both those who choose to undergo breast reconstruction and those who choose not to, offering a different form of healing. Elaine explains her decision to get a mastectomy tattoo: ‘It’s me claiming me back from cancer, my way. Not the consultant’s way, not the plastic surgeon’s way. My way.’

We all wear our scars as living proof of what we have experienced and overcome. For breast cancer survivors these scars represent a complex journey. For many women, losing their breasts feels like they are losing part of their female identity. This rings true for both women who have chosen reconstruction and those who opted out. Women often report feeling a disconnection to their bodies after surgery, left with scars that are a constant reminder of the trauma they have been through. As Sarah B shares: ‘The horror of what happened to me in the last 12 years was seeing the scars every day.’ The tattoos are a way for survivors to reclaim something painful: ‘Just seeing my body for the first time with tattoos was so empowering. Those scars are important because they remind you of what you have been through, but now the ink makes them beautiful.’

For tattoo artists, the process of developing and creating mastectomy tattoos has its own unique set of challenges. Anna Garvey from Adorn Studio, one of the leading studios specialising in mastectomy tattoos, tells me: ‘The technical challenge of scar work and skin that has been compromised by treatment is difficult. Each client is unique, and it takes hours of research, prep, sketching and tattooing to realise each piece of body art.’

The designs chosen are often deeply personal to the individual. Many are inspired by the natural world and encompass an ornate flow of plants and flowers selected for their individual meanings. This lengthy process – Elaine had 25 hours of tattoo work stretching over five months – requires an intimate and trusting relationship between tattooist and survivor.

These tattoos are the start of a new collective narrative. They are a visual record of these women’s lives and the battles they have overcome. Each tattoo marks a journey of resilience. Or, as Sarah G puts it: ‘It’s beyond a physical thing; it’s a psychological change, and a change for the better.’

Words and Art Direction by Gem Fletcher, Photography by Kate Peters and Makeup by Susana Mota & Erica Schlegel