That was until 2012, when a woman approached him about designing a lace bra tattoo to cover her breasts. The woman, who went through breast cancer, had a double-mastectomy and "had some pretty bad scarring and was embarrassed," Walling told San Diego City Beat.
"She loved to wear evening dresses and the scars would almost hang out of the sides of the dress," he continued. The experience is common among breast cancer survivors he's met. "You talk to a lot of women who've had mastectomies, and they all talk about doing drive-bys at the mirror — running by the mirror real quick so they don't see. For her, I think it was about gaining some of that sexiness back."
Sadly, she lost her battle just a couple of months after meeting the tattoo artist, but she stuck with him.
"Going into that, I really didn't have any idea how much I'd be affected by it — how much it would affect her and, in turn, affect me," he said. "I've done a lot of tattooing, but I've never experienced that kind of impact with how a tattoo made someone feel about (herself). It was really powerful."
That impact led him to move his family to San Diego to create Mastectomy Tattoo, a division of his new studio, Garnet Tattoo. Mastectomy Tattoo's mission is to help survivors "reclaim what cancer has taken from them" with a focus on custom-design tattoos for women who've had mastectomies, along with 3-D nipple tattoos and areola pigmentation.
The process is collaborative for Wallin and his clients. "The consultation is the most important part of the process to ensure that survivors get the very best design and are happy with the outcome," Wallin tells SheKnows. They come in with an idea, and he creates something he thinks will work. Once they're in the chair, "my full chest pieces usually take around 12 hours or more," Wallin adds. "Generally women seek approval from their physician before being tattooed to make sure that their scars are ready for tattooing."
"I love it. I really do," Patty Carr, one of Wallin's clients, told City Beat. "I was happy with the decision I made to get the mastectomy, but because of the scars, there wasn't a day that went by when I wasn't reminded of it. A lot of people say be proud of the scars, but for me, I just wanted to make the scars something like a piece of art that I like to look at. Anyone who's thinking about it should just go for it."
The idea of mastectomy tattoos is still a small niche in the industry, but with studios like Wallin's, it'll soon be a way for breast cancer survivors to take back their bodies. "I suggest women seeking this type of work use the Internet to find people in their area," he tells SheKnows. And if none are available? Seek out the best tattoo artists in the area.
"It's still very new to a lot of people, and they can't wrap their head around it," Wallin's wife, Toni, said. "But isn't that what art is? Creating something to make people feel good? I think so."
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