I have the unfortunate privilege of having a friend who recently escaped the hell-hole that is breast cancer, and, for all us in our group of friends, her experience has been an eye-opener. She’s told us about sucking popsicles during treatment to prevent sores. The crippling fear of cancer coming back. And, on a recent outing, she talked about getting nipples (again). This was something that never occurred to any of us—that after reconstruction, breasts would be unadorned.
And that’s how I came to learn about Marie Sena, who runs Oak Cliff’s Electric Eye tattoo shop with her husband, and who also works out of a med spa on Walnut Hill for medical tattooing purposes. She just might be Dallas’ premiere areola tattoo artist. My friend—a straight-laced mom who would never have otherwise gotten inked— encouraged me to pay Sena a visit. So I did. Here is Sena’s story, as she told it to me:
“I’m from New Mexico. I was a very rebellious child. I was just trying to find myself, and I was always just really drawn to that outlaw culture. I got my first tattoo when I was 15. It’s a tree frog. It’s nice to still have it, but it’s still ugly. Back then when I got it, you couldn’t just walk into a place and give them a fake I.D. I had to find a guy who knew a guy, who knew a guy, who had some cousin—it was a little sketchy. It wasn’t exactly my brightest moment, but I just wanted it so bad. I eventually got some legitimate ones after a while. I felt a little wiser.
“I lost count of my tattoos years ago. I’ve got a few open spaces but it’s not a lot. After a while, when this is your job, your profession, you stop getting tattoos for their meaning and you start collecting them like you would collect paintings from artists that you liked. If I know this girl who does incredible portraiture, I’m going to ask her for a portrait. If I really admire this person and love the way they do birds, I will go to them and ask them for what they do best.
“I have this really kind of bizarre background, where I’ve been tattooing professionally for 12 years, and I actually got my graduate degree from UT Southwestern Medical Center here in Medical Illustration, so I’ve been illustrating medical textbooks for years now. Medical illustrations kinda took a backseat to tattooing. We had moved away to Colorado, and then, when I moved back, I reconnected with one of my old medical advisors at UT Southwestern to do some illustrations. She was the one who brought it up to me. She was like, “Do you know that there’s this thing that kinda fits your really weird skill set?”
“And so I started talking to some plastic surgeons around DFW, and they were like, ‘Yes, we absolutely need someone who can do a realistic 3D areola tattoo.’ Cause they just weren’t getting the results that they wanted. A lot of plastic surgeons use somebody that’s in-house, and sometimes that person is a nurse, or sometimes it’s the doctors themselves.
“I did a practice nipple on myself. It’s right there [points to thigh]; it’s tiny. My husband’s got prototype number two. And one on my friend. I didn’t want to try it out on somebody who needed me to do a perfect job. They’ve been through all of that, so much. The last thing they need is somebody to give them something ugly. I want to make them feel good about themselves and not just add to whatever sort of trauma they’ve already experienced. So once I had refined my technique, I was like, ‘We can absolutely do this.’
“I feel really comfortable in the medical setting and I know just enough anatomy. It was a natural fit. I never thought that my medical illustration training and my years of tattooing would bleed together in this really beautiful, strange way and actually help people. I dedicate one full day a week to it, sometimes more. The rest of the week I’m doing decorative stuff.
“It’s interesting, because it’s so different from my regular tattoo clients. They already know what to expect; this is old news to them. To have some older woman come in, and she’s gonna get her nipples tattooed, and she’s nervous—you have to handle them differently. There’s a little bit of fear or uncertainty. It’s taught me a lot about slowing things down, and talking people through everything step-by-step, and helping them to not be afraid of getting this. In reality, it’s one of the easiest things they’re gonna go through in this whole process. This is nothing compared to reconstruction surgery. This is like getting a chemical peel or something; it’s nothing.
“First thing I do is, they come in and we talk about what’s gonna happen step-by-step. Then I’ll clean everything off with alcohol and start drawing and sizing things. I’ll try to stay proportionate to the breast but kind of on the smaller side, because it’s more youthful. Unless I’m doing a unilateral tattoo, in which case I’m matching it. We discuss size, color, shape, and things that they don’t like. What do you not want to have? Were you really dark before? Some have children and your areolas just get darker and maybe they didn’t like that, and they want to have paler areolas. Really it can be anything—they could have purple nipples if they wanted.
“I just finished this awesome girl last week. A prophylactic mastectomy. That means preventative. When she had hers reconstructed, she was more concerned with covering the scars than getting nipples back. She said, ‘I just want something crazy; I want something really cool and decorative.” What we decided to do was these fancy, lovely mandalas. That’s not for everyone, but it was for her. She wanted that.
“When I’m working with these women, I try to do whatever they want. What do you feel? What do you see? What’s going to make you feel whole again? Just tell me, and I’ll do it. I’ll follow up a month after and see how they’re doing, make sure they’re healing okay. I’m always trying to see if I can have them come in for a touch up just so that I make sure they are looking really good. I keep in touch with a lot of them.
“It’s so emotional. Some women tear up, it’s always happy, which is the nice thing. I’m very grateful that I get to see them at the end; this is the close. They don’t have to see anybody else after they see me. Up until that point, they’re in this stage of being almost finished but a little unfinished. It’s like a face without features. You see a reconstructed breast that doesn’t have an areola on it, all you see is the scars. Once you put it back, everything else melts into the background.
“A lot of clients have told me that they’ve stopped noticing their scars. They feel good when they get out of the shower. They feel more like a woman. They feel confident. They feel like they can go out and date again. Some of these women are trying to put their lives back together. Maybe they’re trying to go out on dates again, trying re-enter the scene, and they want to feel like they don’t have to hide something. It’s been beyond fulfilling, in a way that I never expected or thought was possible.”