Claire Louise Willis, 37, from Poole, Dorset, offers a free service tattooing lifelike areolas - the coloured area of skin that surrounds the nipple or teat - onto women after they have had theirs removed or disfigured during surgery.
The innovative technique uses detailing and shading to mimic a real areola and give a 3D appearance to a woman’s nipple area.
In the past three years, Willis estimates that she’s tattooed areolas onto 40 breast cancer survivors, often with life-changing results.
“It’s the very least they deserve,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
Willis, who has been a cosmetic tattoo artist for seven years now, decided to set up the free service for breast cancer survivors three years ago.
While she hadn’t been personally affected by breast cancer when she started the venture (although her gran was later diagnosed with the disease), she said that as a woman and mum, she can appreciate how deeply women could be affected by surgery and felt she had a duty to use her skills to help others.
“The thought of going through breast cancer fills you with so much fear,” she said.
“You can only imagine what people have been through by the time they get to the stage of needing a tattoo.
“It must be awful to go through that and, to a certain degree, lose your femininity. If I can do this and make these women feel really good about themselves again then that’s fantastic.”
Willis never knows how people will react to her work. While some are moved and can get upset, one of her clients, Jo Shorey, was left absolutely elated by the experience.
Shorey was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 after she noticed that her breast had “folded in on itself” while holidaying in Cyprus. She was later diagnosed with aggressive, stage two breast cancer and had to have a single mastectomy and breast reconstruction, followed by chemotherapy.
She lived without her areola for 17 years, however after recently having her other breast lifted, she decided it was time for some closure.
The 56-year-old read about Willis’ service in the local newspaper and immediately booked an appointment to have her areola tattooed.
The procedure lasted 90 minutes but Shorey said she didn’t really feel any pain whatsoever.
“I was so excited once it was finished, I was jumping around,” she said. “I’m like that. I’m a very happy person.”
The hairdresser and fitness instructor added that her new nipple looks amazing, so much so that she showed it to clients who genuinely believed it was 3D.
Willis’ work is not just about aesthetics, the tattoos hold a much deeper meaning for the women and can make a huge difference to their lives.
One client had lost everything to cancer. She was too sick to work and so went into debt and her partner left her.
“She had to spend the past six years rebuilding all of that back up,” Willis said. “Having her areola tattoo was the last piece to her jigsaw.”
Another woman who visited Willis took her daughter along to normalise the experience, as genetically she was also at risk of developing breast cancer in later life.
“Afterwards my client burst into tears because she felt so happy and relieved,” Willis recalled. “It brought out a real burst of emotion for her.”
At the moment, the cosmetic tattoo artist is able to devote one day a month free-of-charge to clients in Weymouth and Poole. Understandably her service is extremely popular and her diary reflects that - she’s booked up now until mid 2018.
A single areola tattoo takes her roughly an hour and a half to complete - “because you have to go through colour selection, shape design, cleanse the area, paperwork, and then the tattooing starts” - while a double takes about two hours.
There is certain criteria she requires clients to meet before working on them. For example, if a woman has had cancer in the last two years, Willis requires a doctor’s consent to tattoo over the scar tissue. Additionally, if she looks at someone’s breast and can still see a lot of redness around the scars, she refuses to work on them and asks them to return in a year’s time.
Discussing safety when opting for an areola tattoo, John Newlands, senior cancer information nurse specialist at Macmillan Cancer Support, told HuffPost UK that it’s important for women who have had surgery for breast cancer to remain breast aware.
“Redness or a rash around the nipple, skin or scar area may be an early sign of a reoccurrence of breast cancer,” he said.
“An artistic tattoo could potentially hide this sign. Any woman considering having an artistic tattoo should discuss this with their breast team first.”
As demand for Willis’ service is incredibly high (as she puts it: “there’s only one of me and thousands of women who need it done”). As a result, she’s now offering to train permanent makeup artists in other areas of the UK so they can offer a similar service to locals.
“It makes me feel really happy to be able to give back to these women,” she said.
“It’s an area of my work which doesn’t involve exchange of money. It’s just one person giving something to somebody else - and that feels really good.”
If you would like to train with Claire, please contact her via her website.