Nearly one year after Kirsten Michaud had a double mastectomy, she found herself looking for something which would give her joy and peace, especially when looking at the scars on her chest.
“I realized that the other options weren’t going to do it for me,” said Michaud. “My (breasts) were never going to look the same again…..I just wanted something to cover the scars and make it beautiful.”
She decided that a mastectomy tattoo would suit her best. And, so began a search through tattoo parlors, seeking the right place and the right person, all the while mindful that she needed a place close to her house – she knew she was still recuperating and needed to do this work slowly.
Enter Mike “Ike” Trimboli, a tattoo artist at Infamous Ink Tattoo Studio (11229 East Independence Boulevard – Suite #1) who had experience with self-harm and tummy-tuck clients – individuals who wished to have tattoos cover up their arm and tummy scars, respectively.
They nearly immediately “clicked.”
“It’s really important that you have a connection with your tattoo artist because you are going to be spending numerous hours with them, in close proximity and super-exposed. You know what I mean? I laid in that back room half-naked for eight hours, so that’s something ….we hit it off well, right ‘off the bat.’ “
After carefully designing the image, Ike needed to ensure that the design would take into consideration the scar areas and the “form and flow of the body and make sure it would match.”
The tattoo application took place in the three sessions over approximately two months. When it was over, Kirsten was overjoyed. Ike felt as if he had truly helped someone.
“My mom’s a nurse,” Ike said, explaining that he, too, had found a similar desire to help others. “When you give tattoos, you don’t really help people other than giving them cool tattoos….it’s skin deep. When I started doing the self-harm clients, I felt like I was helping people. They started wearing short sleeves again. And with the mastectomy tattoo, it was like ‘Wow!’ – this is really fulfilling. (I decided that) I can help more people and I just drew from that,” he said.
It’s really important that you have a connection with your tattoo artist because you are going to be spending numerous hours with them, in close proximity and super-exposed.
Michaud saw the impact the experience had on Ike. “I got the feeling that Ike got a lot out of helping me thru this process and that he wanted to continue doing this (work),” said Michaud.
And, so they joined forces to combine their paths into a common and shared goal. “We talked about how expensive tattoos are ($800-1800),” said Michaud. “After treatments and medical bills, that’s not an expense that most women can afford and, of course, it’s not covered by insurance. So this idea came that maybe we’d start a (nonprofit) and we’d pay for the mastectomy tattoos.”
Michaud quickly secured a Board of Directors and formed a 501(c)(3). In January of this year, Inked Phoenix was born. She began visiting tattoo parlors in North, and, then, South Carolina. “I’m looking at the environment they are going into. I want to make sure that they have a private room; that they are comfortable there.” It is Michaud’s fervent desire that everything, including the business aspect, is handled beforehand and that the entire process goes smoothly for applicants who have already endured significant emotional and physical pain.
“I’ve already done the hard work. They can go down the list and pick whichever one they want.” Clients don’t handle any money; the funds are transferred from Inked Phoenix to the tattoo parlor. Inked Phoenix subsidizes 100% of the work at the artist’s rate.
“After seeing how much work Ike put into it and realizing the skill-factor needed to complete a mastectomy tattoo, to have to sit there and listen to someone tell their (survivor) story and go through (all) the emotions, I really felt like they need to be compensated for that,’ Michaud said. “And, they should be. It’s their talent….It’s not easy to work on scar tissue.”
“I’ve already done the hard work. They can go down the list and pick whichever one they want.” Inked Phoenix subsidizes 100% of the work at the artist’s rate.
“I have a scar line that (when Ike touched it) it nearly sent me off the table,” she said. “That’s the other reason (the artists must have experience) - they are working with scar tissue – it’s not just the texture of it, but understanding that you are going to have nerve endings that have feeling and nerve endings that have no feeling.” Tattoo artists need to “be patient enough to understand that,” said Michaud.
This year, nearly one dozen applicants are expected to receive tattoos - a number she expects will double next year. And, Michaud’s goal is to expand into more Carolinas locations and possibly beyond (tattoo artists in Florida and Nevada have contacted her asking to be involved).
“I didn’t want women to have to drive that far because it’s exhausting,” said Michaud. “You’re laying on the table, your adrenaline is flowing, your endorphins are going, and it’s such an emotional experience. Having to drive (many) hours after that is ridiculous.”
While navigating the new nonprofit, Michaud decided to also add veterans into the mix. (Her son and husband are both in the military). “This was another group which would benefit from this. You (wouldn’t) have to see your scars all day…….. A lot of vets say, ‘I didn’t even think to do this.’”
To attract contributors and clients, Michaud has started speaking to breast cancer survivors/groups; reached out to veterans and breast cancer organizations/nonprofits; sold t-shirts and has spread the word at tattoo festivals and Harley Davidson festivals/gatherings. “We are slowly but surely getting the word out…..when you talk about tattoos and breasts, it isn’t warm and fuzzy.”
What is her most motivating factor? “The passion is because I know how it changed my life and I get an email back from a woman who tells me that it’s the first time she’s worn a bathing suit in years, because you don’t notice the scar right away. Or, a woman whose daughter says she looks like a “badass” and I know it makes her feel good because her daughter notices (it). I just think this is something that should be available. It should not be a choice, simply because you can’t afford it.”
In the future, Michaud said she hopes that doctors will begin suggesting mastectomy tattoos as a possibility. “Mastectomy tattoos aren’t something that even doctors talk about…they don’t present it as an option.” She also intends to continue expanding her nonprofit and her work. “I just want to stay on this mission,” Michaud said. “It’s important that you have a good rapport with your tattoo artist. I’ve known Ike for 2 ½ years now. He was such a part of such an emotional experience with me that he, until I die, will be a part of my life - just because of that.”