We’re taking pictures of Aisling Mahon in her tattoo studio in Newbridge, Co Kildare. Both the photographer and I are keen to get the tattoo gun in the shots, thinking it will be a large, clunky machine that will stand out.
“I don’t think it’s going to be what you’re expecting,” Aisling laughs, heading off to retrieve the device in question. She returns with a very neat and petite instrument, not at all the machine we imagined.
Things in the world of tattooing have clearly moved on.
“When I was training, I started out using what’s called a coil machine, one of the older styles,” Aisling explains.
“The guys who trained me, I introduced them to the new type. It’s progressed even more now, they’re almost like a pen and wireless too. I have it attached to my wrist, so I can move around and not be tied to a station or anything
“This machine here is really gentle. There’s even suspension in it, everything I use is for comfort. "The older, more traditional machines are noisier, heavier on the skin and cause more trauma. That affects your experience. I’ve been tattooed by both types and there’s a big difference.”
As well as the actual tattoo guns moving on, so has what tattoo artists are able to do with them. For Aisling, tattooing isn’t just a decorative process. Over the past couple of years she has started to specialise in mastectomy and areola restorative tattooing, alongside her other tattooing work.
Basically this means, for those who have had mastectomies she can decoratively tattoo the breast area and also tattoo on what looks like a very realistic areola (the pigmented skin around the nipple) and nipple.
How Aisling got into this line of work is quite an interesting story. But first let’s go back just a little bit further to her origins in tattooing.
From a young age, Aisling was particularly artsy, always crafting and drawing. When she took to drawing on herself though, it didn’t go down particularly well at home.
“My mam was terrified I’d get ink poisoning,” Aisling recalls with laughter.
These early, temporary tattoos served Aisling well. She attended Holy Family Secondary School in Newbridge and her drawing skills helped her connect with the girls, particularly as a 16-year-old in transition year (TY).
“I kept drawing on myself in class and people started to notice. It was always flowers and stuff like that. They were like, ‘Do you want to draw something on me?’ We did it in TY to pass the time.
“It was a way of me socialising without even knowing it. It’s a great way to connect with people. I found when I was drawing – and I still find while tattooing – I could talk real easy, it just relaxes me. Someone randomly in school one day said, ‘You should be a tattoo artist’. I went, ‘Oh my God, yeah, I should’. It was like a lightbulb moment.”
After school Aisling did a one-year art course in Ballyfermot College of Further Education (BCFE) to get her art skills to a level she was happy with.
Then she did an apprenticeship in a tattoo studio in Dublin. This is not a formally recognised apprenticeship, as tattooing and piercing in Ireland are unregulated, something Aisling hopes will change in the future.
At the ripe old age of 20, she opened her first tattoo studio in Newbridge. When we meet Aisling, she is in a newer premises in the town that she moved to a couple of years ago. However, this week, Aisling is moving again to a larger premises with a private room for her mastectomy work.
“I was very young when I set up the business, but I always knew I wanted to work for myself. It was a struggle and I wouldn’t have even made a wage for a long time. People thought I was crazy to keep going. I would have been better off financially going to another studio and working there, but I just knew it wasn’t my end goal.”
Aisling is now open eight years and reckons it took six of those to really build up a client base and to be able to focus on a niche; hers being the mastectomy tattooing and specialising in a delicate, fine line style.
Scar cover ups
For Aisling, the mastectomy and areola tattooing came about almost by accident. A few years ago, Aisling was particularly struck by the fact that a lot of people were coming in for tattoos to cover up self-harm scars. So she started a project to give back a little; every month for a year she gave away a free scar cover-up tattoo.
Following this, a woman contacted her to know did she do mastectomy scar cover ups, and so a very special journey began.
“This lady and I, we really connected. She brought her husband in with her and it was very much a couple together designing it. They were like, ‘We want the leaves of this flower, because it’s strong, but elegant’. It was just one of those moments."
I can never imagine how much it means to them, I can only gather from how I feel when I’m with them. It lifts me and it lifts them even more
“When I finished, just seeing her face, it was life changing. She came in, she was very shy and nervous. When she was leaving, she was elevated. She just looked so happy and confident in herself, ready to take on the world. She was in her late 60s, early 70s.
“That was my first mastectomy client and I just fell in love with it. It’s purposeful and healing. It’s life-changing, I think. I can never imagine how much it means to them, I can only gather from how I feel when I’m with them. It lifts me and it lifts them even more.”
After this initial experience, Aisling knew she would need speciality training. Following some research, she decided the best option would be an areola restorative tattooing course in Calgary, Canada, which includes scar cover-up training.
The course is very art orientated and you need to be accepted on it by showing your work, as well as having a minimum number of years’ experience tattooing and previous experience with scar tissue.
Aisling was accepted, travelled to Calgary in November 2018 to complete the course and did her first areola tattoo there. The course also introduced Aisling to a network of tattoo artists worldwide carrying out similar work.
When she came home from Canada, Aisling was doing one decorative mastectomy or areola tattoo every few months. Now she does roughly two a week and is booked up until 2021.
The consultation, Aisling says, is detailed. If it’s only one nipple she is tattooing on, she can match it to the other. If a client has taken pictures of their nipples pre-surgery, she can try to recreate them as closely as possible.
“I’d a lady in getting a full decorative piece. We took a break and she said, ‘Is it OK if I go down to the shop?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, work away, I’ll cover the area’. She said then, ‘Ah sure, I won’t put the bra on’. Off she went, came back and said, ‘I haven’t gone outside without a bra since this, that’s how much confidence I have right now’.”
In Ireland at present, Aisling is one of the only people doing these tattoos. In terms of options offered alongside reconstructive surgery, the areola and nipple can be drawn on, but are not defined. You can also get a second surgery to have a nipple reconstructed.
Going forward, Aisling would like if more of her business moved towards mastectomy and areola restorative tattooing, but would also like to keep at least one day a week for her regular tattooing work.
These women deserve the best
She feels there’s scope for tattoo artists to work with doctors on the breast reconstruction process.
“In America, team members of mine from the course are working with surgeons and helping them design the reconstructive side of things. It’s nice to have a collaboration, because we’re all in this together to help the client get the best results.”
“These women deserve the best,” she says. “It’s how they feel about themselves, it’s their self-confidence. Even if it’s just walking by a mirror and catching a glance of yourself, having the nipple back there, it just looks normal. Your subconscious just sees the normal thing, you don’t see the trauma you’ve been through.”
In January 2019, Jean Hogan from Limerick had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“With a lot of doctors there’s the option of saving your own nipple,” Jean explains, “but you’re leaving behind a small percentage where the cancer could come back, so I didn’t go for it.
“The only option I heard about was where they construct you a nipple through surgery themselves, but that would be another surgery again. I’d never heard about the tattoos.”
Six months after her surgery, Jean came across Aisling’s work on Facebook. Aisling explained to Jean she would have to wait until a year post-surgery to get the areola tattoos, and so in February of this year she travelled to Newbridge.
“I wanted to get it for cosmetic reasons and I wasn’t willing to go in for another surgery. I didn’t want to put my body through that. For me, it’s perfect. It’s exactly what I needed, there’s something there. It just seemed very bare without it.”
For Jean, getting the areola tattoo has improved her confidence greatly. She hopes going forward more information around options like this will be made available to breast cancer patients.
“There’s no information made available to you on anything like this. It’s very much ‘go out there yourself and find things’. Especially as a young person, it’s an awful time, so if you knew these things were available to you, it would definitely make it a little bit easier.”