Medical tattooing is gratifying to artist Kerry Soraci

click to enlarge Medical tattooing is gratifying to artist Kerry Soraci
(Noelle Haro-Gomez/Contributor)
Tattooing comes naturally to Kerry Soraci of Black Rose World Class Tattooers.

Walking toward the back of Black Rose’s Sixth Avenue tattoo shop, a set of stairs that leads up to Kerry Soraci’s private room for medical tattooing awaits.

The use of tattooing to create the appearance of the nipple-areola complex was introduced by Hilton Becker, plastic surgeon, in 1986 according to the Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery.

Types of medical tattooing can vary from realistic nipples and areolas, the covering of scar tissue to realistic veins on a penis post-phalloplasty.

Soraci is a 54-year-old tattoo artist, originally from St. Louis, and began her craft in 1994. She started getting a few requests to do nipple tattoos, which is the tattooing of realistic nipples common after breast reconstruction surgery or after a mastectomy (areolas, Montgomery glands and all), but it wasn’t until 2014 Soraci started to focus on medical tattooing.

“As a woman, I was getting more and more requests to do the nipples and as I did more, I really enjoyed doing them,” Soraci said. “Being able to capture something realistic like that, with all the tiny details was actually very fun and challenging, and each nipple is different so it’s not repetitive.”

Aside from the fun challenge, Soraci described her career in medical tattooing as incredibly emotionally gratifying. She’s worked with cancer survivors who have had to undergo mastectomies and transgender men who have undergone top surgery (removal of breast tissue and reconstruction of chest), both of which can result in scarring or the removal of nipples.

Beth Ross is a 61-year-old breast cancer survivor from Jefferson County, Missouri, who was diagnosed with triple positive metastatic breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy in addition to reconstructive surgery.

Ross couldn’t really feel the vibrations of the tattoo gun, which Soraci said is common when tattooing people who’ve had mastectomies. She could, however, still hear the relaxed humming of the tattoo gun while Soraci hummed along to Nirvana that played in the background.

She was determined to get at least her nipples done, thinking it would be a step in the right direction. Soraci tattooed light pink areolas and nipples, and an assortment of flowers that each had significance to Ross.

Soraci added deep purple and lavender magnolias accented with a light rose color, some of which are buds in growth, with lime green vines framing her inner breasts and below her nipples. These magnolias represent perseverance and strength because the magnolias itself have stood the test of time. Ross also likes how feminine the flowers look.

Between her two breasts rests a bright red rose which is similar in size to that of a real rose (unconditional love), green aloe can be found along some of the vines of the magnolias (for healing) and blowing wheat (serenity). At the bottom of her right breast reads “Jimmy” and her left breast “Lynn” (her husband’s name), all of which build up to an orange and blue butterfly, which represents her transformation to who she is now.

Now, when Ross looks in the mirror, she doesn’t have to see scars that reminded her of her battle, exhaustion or how sick she got. She feels “empowered.”

Kori Elam, 29, traveled from Lexington, Kentucky, to get his nipples done and to camouflage a scar that had keloided after getting his top surgery.

Elam had decided to remove all breast tissue including his nipples given that breast cancer runs in his family. For years, he had been looking for a medical tattooist who does nipples but they couldn’t convey dimension. The nipples looked flat.

Elam saw two or three photos of Soraci’s work and instantly felt connected. It helped him to feel how accepting she was of him and the transgender community. “A lot of people who do this work, it’s just for breast cancer,” he said. “I’m kind of iffy on that because I don’t know how accepting a tattoo artist will be.”

First, Soraci took measurements of Elam’s chest to figure out the placement of his nipples. She mixed colors together to make a light sandy brown similar to that of his old nipples. Then Soraci drew circles to show Elam the size of what his new nipples would look like. After about 30 minutes, Elam had a new pair of nipples, and a scar that’s barely visible now that it’s healed and the hair on his chest has grown to cover it.

It was only last summer when Elam went to the beach with his kids to swim, which was one of their favorite things to do together. But Elam felt uncomfortable and anxious taking off his shirt and having the feeling people would stare or ask questions about why he had scars and no nipples.

“It felt like I was still in hiding after having that gender confirmation surgery, because I felt like I still couldn’t live a full life the way I wanted to,” Elam said. “After having the nipple tattoos done, I was thinking of how excited I am for the summer because I don’t have to worry or have that anxiety surrounding normal activities.”

As simple as a pair of nipple tattoos may seem, they have changed Elam’s life… And he walks around shirtless a little more often now.

“With the people transitioning, it’s just so emotional and gratifying,” said Soraci. “You could have someone closing a traumatic chapter in their life where they can feel they’ve taken a step forward and out of that chapter, or you’ve got someone where it can be more of a blossoming experience.”

Amanda Penn, 48, was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in her right breast in 2014 and decided to get a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She had gotten breast implants leaving the final step to her reconstruction journey: Getting her nipples done.

Penn considers Tucson one of her homes, though she currently resides in Wichita, Kansas, and here is where she first learned about medical tattooing being an option for her nipple reconstruction. Her quest for the right tattoo artist began.

She didn’t want to undergo another surgery and instead to finally take back control and power of how she wanted her breasts and nipples to look and feel, and Penn didn’t think she would get that with surgery. After stumbling across an article featuring Soraci, Penn decided to do some research and was sold after seeing her work for the breast cancer community.

Soraci met Penn at the doors of Black Rose’s tattoo shop, walking her up to the private studio lit by lamps and together they sat on the couch to chat before tattooing.

“The conversation took longer than the tattoo did. For about an hour we talked about the direction we were going to take, she took her time understanding my journey, perspective and how I got to this decision,” Penn said.

Penn didn’t bring a photo of what her nipples looked like before, so they collaborated on shades and coloring. After stenciling an idea of Penn’s new nipple size, Penn gave Soraci the free reign as an artist to free hand the rest of the tattoo.

Empowering music and philosophical conversations filled the room for that hour of tattooing, and Penn knew she was exactly where she needed to be. Upon finishing, Soraci walked Penn back to the front doors, gave her a big hug and sent her on her way. The two still keep in touch about Penn’s healing process, as she just got them this February.

“It’s been a physical and emotional change…When I look in the mirror I have a scar from the surgery that the nipple tattoo mostly covers up. I’m not aware anymore when I look in the mirror [of post-mastectomy scarring, and no nipples], I feel put back together in a beautiful way,” Penn voiced through a cry. “It’s a whole different tear now, it’s breakthrough and stepping forward tears.”

Penn knows she was never broken, and she doesn’t want to recreate what she had pre-mastectomy. She’ll forever look back feeling grateful but continues to move forward in her journey, she’s even thinking of getting artwork around her breasts to feel more empowered.

“I am happy and have full gratitude for the opportunity that women have choices in how they move forward in healing. Whether that be with or without breast implants, nipples constructed surgically or with a tattoo,” Penn said.

Penn felt understood by Soraci as another woman and what it meant to her psychologically and emotionally to be able to get her medical tattooing work done.

A lot of people don’t like looking in the mirror, or feel like their bodies are theirs after undergoing top surgery or a mastectomy, Soraci added. As for women who’ve had mastectomies, they have special relationships to their breasts — to feeding their kids or something as simple as filling out dresses, she said.

“It’s pretty awesome because I feel like not only are those women closing that door but are re-writing it. Instead of going back to try mimicking what it was [what their breasts looked like], and there’s nothing wrong with that obviously,” Soraci explained. “They choose to change the whole narrative to ‘I’m going to decide now what my body is going to look like, what is beautiful to me, what is feminine to me,’ and so they just take it as a turn as opposed to trying to get back on track, and I think that’s pretty empowering.”

Black Rose World Class Tattooers

47 S. Sixth Avenue, Tucson


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