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The tattoo artists changing the way breast cancer survivors see their scars

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The story of Personal Ink begins with a woman named Molly Ortwein. 

Diagnosed with breast cancer, Molly received a double mastectomy that left her scarred. Those scars acted as a daily reminder of all she had been through, so she decided to try a different kind of reconstruction to redesign her breasts to an image of her own choosing.

Unfortunately, short of being told she could just draw her nipples back on, Ortwein found few creative options. After her reconstructive surgery, she thought of having someone like a tattoo artist take a shot at covering her scarred nipples. Ortwein discussed her plans with her brother-in-law Noel Franus, vice president and experience director for advertising and design agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. Franus realized that Molly probably wasn’t the only one having a problem finding ways to cover mastectomy scars. 

“Both of these experiences [cancer and reconstruction] leave marks. That’s why I decided to launch Personal Ink,” Franus told the Daily Dot. “The sole unmet need when women like Molly start to think about other options is design inspiration and finding tattoo artists near them, so that’s what we try to provide.”

Video via P.INK/YouTube (May be NSFW)

Founded in December 2012, the non-profit aims to provide tattoo ideas and inspiration to breast cancer survivors and connect patients with tattoo artists qualified to work on scars. They see all of these things as “tools for moving on.” 

Since its launch, P.INK has stood out as a unique organization not just due to its goal but because it’s primarily a Pinterest-based platform.

“Pinterest seemed to be a perfect fit. It was a perfect storm of opportunity. We were exploring a few different design options for websites when it occurred to us that a platform already existed to meet every need we were looking for,” Franus said. “Pinterest is a highly-visual medium, extremely shareable, and people are already using it to share design inspiration.”

The fact that Pinterest is overwhelmingly used by women also meant P.INK had found a perfect demographic fit, while saving the time, trouble, and money of building their own custom website. Franus said it also works great as a long-term platform because while some people might visit a website once, share it and move on, the Pinterest community frequently shares content that’s 6 months to a year old—there’s no definite shelf life. Once someone shares P.INK’s images, they have a way of steamrolling on.

P.INK has shown over the course of its first year how the virtual pinboard site is now more than just another social media outlet. It receives enough traffic that groups can use it as their sole homepage. Some users are surprised by P.INK’s use of Pinterest, and others think the shorthand URL provided on the group’s Facebook is leading to the wrong page. But Franus says most don’t treat it as anything less than an official website.

“We’re doing something not done with Pinterest before...Pinterest is our core source of interaction,” he said.

With more than 6,700 Pinterest followers, P.INK is certainly doing something right. As its following has grown, so have its collection of boards. The group now features 11 boards with more than 1,200 pins on tattoo inspirations, survivors and supporters, breast and chest tattoos, mastectomy tattoo FAQs, and more. Their followers also aren’t shy about sharing their stories and letting P.INK know how it inspired them.

“Once I find the right artist I am doing this—too many days looking at the scars across my chest which have kept me from moving on with my life,” wrote Ellen Feig.

Stephanie Wisdom wrote that she had a double mastectomy in December 2012 and had traditional areola tattoos done, but after seeing P.INK’s pictures is “absolutely considering adding some artwork—because really even with the areola tattoos, the scars are very visible.”

All featured artists are verified as having worked on scars before. Whether P.INK contacts the artists or the artists reach out to them, the group makes sure they have enough experience to be recommended to patients.

While Molly’s tattoo design is very popular with followers, Franus said often times looking at P.INK’s images or talking with an artist inspires new, more personal ideas. P.INK fosters this by sharing images not just of tattoos, but flowers, birds, and anything else that could serve as inspiration.

“It speaks to the role that the artist can play not just as the technical support but by putting their creative skills to work, and that’s when this idea works best to create a sense of living, healing art,” Franus said.

A goal for P.INK in 2014 is to host more events across the country where people can meet tattoo artists in person and get work done. Last year they held a P.INK Day in New York City using the crowdfunding site indiegogo. The group will be looking for help to secure the funds for more events in the near future.

Photos via Personal Ink/Pinterest