In the past, breast cancer survivors who underwent a mastectomy or double mastectomy had two options after surgery: to have their breasts reconstructed or not to have their breasts reconstructed.
Recently, a third choice – ornately tattooing over the scars – became more available through an organization called P.ink, which is pronounced "pea-ink" and is short for "personal ink." The non-profit organization's tagline is "breast cancer doesn't have to leave the last mark."
The annual event, which started in 2013, connects women who have mastectomy scars with high-end, volunteer tattoo artists. In the past, some women had nipples tattooed on their breasts after a mastectomy, but P.ink tattoos are very artistic and detailed with the purpose of covering the scars.
Noel Franus came up with the idea for P.ink after his sister-in-law, Molly Ortwein, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Franus, like many people, wasn’t aware of the particulars after a mastectomy and was surprised to learn that Ortwein would not get her nipples back after surgery. He wondered if there was a way that Ortwein, and other women in her situation, could regain some of what cancer stole from them.
Hence, Franus brainstormed with his coworkers at Boulder-based advertising agency CP+B and soon P.ink Day was born. In 2011, Ortwein received a mastectomy tattoo and made a that received 2.9 million views on YouTube.
The first official P.ink Day took place on Oct. 21, 2013 at Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn where numerous tattoo artists volunteered their time, talents and space to camouflage 10 survivors’ scars. Four of Ortwein’s sisters, including Jenifer Tate and Libby Castro, who both live in Milwaukee, attended the inaugural event. They were so inspired, they decided to coordinate P.ink Day Milwaukee.
"This was a very personal experience for us from the beginning," says Tate.
This year is only the second year of the event and 12 cities will host a P.ink Day event: Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boulder, Seattle, Columbia (South Carolina), San Diego, Vancouver, Canada and Calgary, Canada.
The four women getting tattooed in Milwaukee are from Virginia, Michigan, Illinois and New York. Hundreds of women applied, but Castro says they could not pick any local survivors this year because they couldn't find one who was both medically qualified and interested.
"When our local survivors didn’t pan out, we are given a list of people who said they would travel for a tattoo and we went down that list from first applied and found our four," says Castro.
The survivors will arrive on Thursday, Oct. 9 and spend the night at the Iron Horse Hotel, compliments of the hotel. They are invited to bring a guest along with them.
P.ink Day Milwaukee will take place on Friday, Oct. 10 when the four survivors receive their tattoos at Rockstar Tattoo Company, 2702 S. 108th St. Brock Steven, the owner of Rockstar, donated his space and talents for the entire day.
"I knew the event would allow me to give something more than money or gift certificates, rather my time and skills," says Steven. "I was excited from the get go."
Other participating artists include Chicago’s David Allen along with local artists Ashley Neumann, also from Rockstar Tattoo, and Rachelle Krischan from Jedi Tattoo in Waukesha.
Each survivor is paired with an artist based on the kind of tattoo they want and the artist’s style. The artists, in some cases, help the survivors choose the tattoos, but others know what they want. The artists tattoo over and / or incorporate the scar into the tattoo, and spend approximately six hours on each tattoo.
"P.ink Day Milwaukee would simply not be possible without these tattoo artists donating their time," says Tate.
Many of the artists, including Steven, have a lot of experience tattooing over scars.
"I have tattooed over and around all sorts of scars. From childbirth scars, birthmarks, accident scars, surgery scars and self-inflicted cutting scars," says Steven. "With 12 years in the industry, I've see a little bit of everything, scars being most personal of all."
Along with the space and the tattooing, Steven will also provide aftercare, gift bags and squeeze balls for when the women are receiving their tattoo. He is also offering free breast cancer survivor tattoos (off of a pre-designed sheet of tattoos) and free nipple tattoos during the month of October.
"I’m just trying to do my part and give back the gifts of my art," says Steven. "I’m aways trying to grow and improve as an artist and human being."
One of the women getting tattooed during P.ink Day Milwaukee is terminally ill.
"I want to give a piece of art that will hopefully provide some tranquility," says Steven. "I've always believed that one of the greatest attributes to life is doing something for someone who can never repay you. If we all did this, even if only for one person in our life, the world would be a much better place."
On Thursday, Nov. 6, the Iron Horse Hotel will host an event from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. during which a P.ink Milwaukee video will be revealed. The cost is $25 which will be a donation to P.ink and includes champagne and appetizers. There will also be a signature drink in which all of the proceeds will go to P.ink during the entire month of November through the Iron Horse. The event is open to the public.
"We hope that the artists target their friends in the tattoo community, anyone who has known and loved someone with breast cancer, doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical reps and anyone who wants to take part in a really cool movement," says Castro.
Donations can be made at any time during the year to P.ink, and applications for P.ink Day 2015 are already underway. It's been a successful second year for the new organization, but Tate says this is only the beginning.
"Our goal is for P.ink to be more than a one-day event, rather an opportunity that’s offered throughout the year," says Tate.
Molly Ortwein's P.ink Day video:
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.