To most, a scar is merely a causal accident others think of as a source of pride, but for some, scars can symbolize painful memories.
For survivors of breast cancer, the most frequent type in women worldwide, options for treatment are limited. A mastectomy, the removal of an entire breast, is a common remedy, but the scar left afterwards creates a new problem.
“Scars are something not a lot of people love, especially if it represents something that traumatized you,” said Diana Pirez, a Mexico City based tattoo artist specializing in watercolor.
Tattooing, which presents a new and unconventional solution to breast cancer survivors who choose to cover up their scar with a tattooed nipple or colorful piece, was first popularized by Vinnie Meyers in the early 2000’s, has recently been taken up by Diana Pirez.
Growing up in a Catholic household, Pirez was deterred from piercings, hair dyes and tattoos.
“Tattoos were for cholos, they were for criminals. Women wouldn’t get tattoos,” Pirez said. “My aunt always supported me in art, and I realized that tattoos can be so many different things to so many people.”
A few years ago, Pirez’s aunt died of breast cancer, sparking her interest in tattooing not only as an art form, but a relief. Pirez founded the nonprofit, Reconocerte (or Recognize Yourself), in 2014 with a group of coworkers and friends. After being interviewed by a local news station in Mexico City, Pirez began getting calls and e-mails from women who were in the process of breast cancer surgery.
A tattoo with Pirez isn’t as simple as walking into an ordinary parlor or booking an appointment with an artist. Pirez builds relationships with her clients, attending to them through the process of initially inspecting the scar tissue, to following up on how the skin is healing.
“It makes them feel more comfortable and embraced,” Pirez said. “I’ve always thought it’s not always about covering the scar because you’re ashamed of it, but about making it more beautiful and taking control of something that happened to you that you had no control over.”
Sensitivity is important when it comes to breast tattoos, because they are done on a delicate area and represent an unwanted reminder. Pirez has seen multiple cases in which tattooed nipples have been disproportionate in size or didn’t match their skin tone.
“Tattooing scars is different than tattooing regular skin,” Pirez said. “It presents a whole new challenge; you have to be tender. Usually the skin around breasts after an implant is way thinner, so you have to be really careful not to have blowouts or harm the skin.”
When it comes to doing these difficult tattoos, Pirez’s is entirely self taught. An apprenticeship is the common way to get into tattooing, but after being denied from all the well-known parlors in Mexico City, Pirez decided to practice on anyone who would lend her their skin. Her perseverance paid off. Last year, when Pirez visited Austin, she worked with the legendary artist Shanghai Kate in her parlor before her visa ran out.
“When I tried to go back (to the U.S.), they said, ‘you’re trying to come back so fast, so we’re going to cancel your visa,’” Pirez said.
Currently, Pirez is still stationed in Mexico City and hopes to be back in Austin within the next year after a grueling immigration process. She said her goal is to be able to continue her nonprofit work in the states, changing lives one nipple at a time, but for Pirez, her biggest drive is to reunite with her husband of 2 years.
“It makes you realized how broken it is,” Pirez said. “I support legal immigration, I think it’s important to do things right, but when you do such a horrible job of making an efficient process, it frustrates people.”
In the meantime, while Pirez is awaiting approval for her visa, she continues her work in Mexico, championing the power of tattoos.