Local artist creates reconstructive tattoo business post-breast surgery to make a world of difference
It's a quiet afternoon inside Stacie-Rae Weir's studio, Sacred Space. The artist, making herself comfortable at her "second home," leans back in her desk chair. She turns up the metal music she's selected from her sleek apple desktop, acknowledging that it may clash with the intended ambiance of the studio.
The quaint and clean space is calm and inviting, painted with pastel colors and immersed in soft scents. It feels perfectly suitable for healing services. Few may realize the main service is tattooing, specifically for women seeking areola — the area of the nipple that is removed during a mastectomy — reconstructive services.
Weir tucks her bright red-streaked hair behind her pierced and stretched ears, placing her head in her hands. Her colourful arms are a portfolio of art and read the words "luck" and "love" when placed together. She takes a deep breath.
"I lost my mother to ovarian cancer five years ago, and she tested positive for the BRACA1 gene after her passing," she says of the cancerous gene.
Tearing up, Weir says that she also tested positive for the BRACA1 (breast cancer) gene and underwent a pre-emptive mastectomy surgery of her own. After this personal experience with cancer in 2012, she says the idea of using her tattooing skills for areola reconstruction came to her immediately. She has done upwards of 50 clients in the past two years. Weir has yet to receive mastectomy tattooing, as she will have it "done by a trusted peer " after she has "helped them through the learning process."
Finding her true calling
Stacie Weir's story. Produced by Veronica Pocza and Alexandra Rabbitte (Warning: contains nudity)
The artist came to Calgary in 2003 from small-town Powell River, B.C. She had been "hanging around the local shop" since her early teens and made the move to expand her tattooing clientele and experience.
Weir, both artist and past partial-owner of the popular Calgary tattoo shop Smiling Buddha has been professionally tattooing for 18 years. She says she has now found her true calling.
"I understand women, sexual power and energy," Weir says. "I've also dedicated about 10 years to learning how to tattoo scar tissue. I have the perfect skill set to be doing this."
Her newly launched Hope Eternal Areola Reconstructive Tattoo services, H.E.A.R.T. for short, is now available out of her tattoo studio for those she calls "breast cancer warriors," as well as her regular clientele.
"I don't care for terms like survivor, or patient, because it implies you've lost something. I think these women are warriors. They should feel empowered and look to gain something," she says.
Weir says she gets frustrated at the thought of a woman receiving poor-quality treatment.
"They deserve to have the option to love their body even more than they did before, rather than settle for something mediocre," she says.
Currently, many women are getting the areola tattooing done by physicians or surgeons, as their work is fully covered by Alberta Health Services. Weir has written to Alberta Health Services asking for her services to be covered as well. She has been denied as only medical professionals are reimbursed for this artistic work.
A work of H.E.A.R.T.
Weir says the most obvious physical loss of the surgery is the removal of the nipples and areola complex on a woman's breast. She says the loss is more than just the physical aspect, as it can cause a woman to feel out of touch with their sexuality.
The services Weir offers "are very specialized." She says she seeks to provide women with not only properly executed scar-tissue tattooing, but also the opportunity to reclaim their sexual power and allow them to love their body again.
She says the process is similar to a regular tattoo, and whether it is a creative cover up or basic areola reconstruction, it will look like a regular tattoo.
Weir's plan is to provide clients with full care during their recovery process, including a consultation as well as aftercare and touch up services into a single payment.
"I usually suggest clients wait about six months after their surgery to begin tattoo services, just to make sure everything is finalized and in its rightful place," she says. "Then we can begin to make proper plans for tattooing, and I will be with them every step of the way and available for anything they need."
Weir says she usually spends about six weeks working with a client from the beginning of their service until the final treatment.
Breast cancer warrior Teresa Dingwell did her research on areola tattooing prior to her mastectomy surgery about areola tattooing. She had surgery in January 2012, and saw Weir for tattooing in December 2012. Dingwell's mother also had a mastectomy surgery and received tattooing from a surgeon. It was her mother's results that persuaded Dingwell to look for an artist.
"My surgeon is a great surgeon, but I wanted an artist to do the tattooing," Dingwell says. "She is "thrilled" with her tattooing from Weir and says hers look so "real and almost 3D."
Weir says that doctors and physicians are completing the tattooing as part of reconstruction — "getting it all done in one shot" — when Weir believes it should be a specific and careful process of its own.
Weir has been in contact with Alberta Health Services and many surgeons. The response from the medical community has been mixed, but regardless of support from doctors or surgeons, Weir's services cannot be covered by healthcare because she is not a registered physician. So begins her "uphill battle" with Alberta Health Services, and her fight to provide this tattooing to women without charge.
Trying to bridge the gap
Flinging her hands in the air, she shows her frustration.
"I hate having to charge women for this service, when it should be something they are entitled to," Weir says. Her services can cost up to $525 for areola reconstruction.
"But if anyone were to be getting paid to do this, it should be me, because I do it properly and professionally and I've put the work and time into learning how to do this."
She tenses up, stretches her neck and closes her eyes to collect the proper words. Weir has experienced a lot of difficulty in her quest to "bridge the gap" between the medical world and the tattooing world. It's clear it means more than the money to her.
"I'd even do this for free, for the rest of my life, if it could ensure that this specialized treatment is recognized, covered and provided to women as an option," she says.
Weir acknowledges that she is not medically trained. However, she has the same claim for doctors, as they are not "artistically trained." She says she believes it would be best for the clients if physicians stuck to their physician work during surgery, and have specialized artists provide the reconstructive services and present the different cover-up options.
Showing physical discomfort, Weir cringes at her computer screen while scanning through the "before" images of her past clients. She says half of her clients are seeking post-physician treatment in an attempt to fix a "botched job." The other half comes to Weir for initial services. Scrolling through the pictures, Weir sighs.
As a past surgery patient, Weir knows that women in this position are likely feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable. They are going to accept the services that are readily available to them. Part of Weir's struggle is making herself, and what she can "gift" someone, known.
Pursuing her calling
Weir's plan? She's going to keep tattooing and she isn't going to stop fighting. Although reverting back to full regular client tattooing would ensure a comfortable life and a steady income, she refuses to give up her newfound calling.
Weir plans to keep tattooing regular clients and to unquestionably provide service to every mastectomy patient that contacts her. She's willing to take on the workload, as well as add to it by providing free training to any tattoo artist that wishes to learn the "proper" way of doing this.
"The conversations between the medical world and the tattooing world need to start happening — it shouldn't be so black and white," she says. "The main concern should be the patient and what's best for them," adding that she has the support of many doctors and mastectomy surgeons.
Calgary cosmetic and plastic surgeon, Dr. William De Haas, describes some of the reasons why patients may feel it's "easier" to have their surgeon complete the tattooing.
"Patients find comfort in having a breast reconstruction surgeon do these breast reconstruction procedures. There are often individual circumstances surrounding their breast reconstruction which would make them vulnerable to complications post tattooing, which can be managed by their reconstructive surgeon," Dr. Haas writes in an email.
De Haas understands why patients may prefer to be tattooed by surgeons, but he supports the practice of specialists outside of Alberta Health Service's coverage for performing this service, stating he would "be happy to support this on a case-by-case" contextual basis.
While Weir is willing to discuss possibilities with the medical world, she does not plan on slowing down for them. She adds that it's "ridiculous" that the current regulations mean she would have to go to school in order to be recognized as a physician, when she's already "had every possible experience to ensure she can do this, and do it well."
In her hopes to increase awareness about the need for this service, it's clear that this powerful artist is determined to make a difference.
No progress has been made within Alberta Health Services since Weir started her fight to help breast cancer warriors. She says she decided it was time to take action.
"I've decided to take matters into my own hands a little bit more," she said. "I have to make it known that there is a need for quality in this."
Weir is currently in the process of self-publishing a book that will teach tattoo artists how to properly complete this type of work. Once the book is released, she hopes to travel around North America to speak to conferences and schools, teaching doctors and artists her method.
"That's my ultimate goal," she said. "I would gladly give up my life so that these tattoos don't look like pepperoni."
In her hopes to increase awareness about the need for this service, it's clear that this tough, feminine artist is determined to make a difference.
- By VERONICA POCZA