October was made Breast Cancer Awareness month in 1985 in hopes of supporting more initiatives surrounding breast cancer research. Funding can often be stifled even though, in the U.S. alone, 1 in 8 women will have to face this extremely difficult illness. For those who successfully battle their way through, many tattoo artists offer mastectomy tattoos which can cover scars and give the survivor a renewed sense of love for their body. Shane Wallin, for the past 7 years, has made this his concentration. He opened the San Diego based studio Garnet Tattoo and offers not only mastectomy tattoos, but top surgery scar cover up tattoos as well as Phalloplasty tattoos. In this interview, Shane talks about what drew him to this type of transformative work.
How did you get into tattooing, and why was it something you were drawn to? Do you remember the first time you saw tattoos?
As long as I can remember drawing has been a major interest for me. I grew up in a small town outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was a conservative and religious community. Being an only child, raised by a single mother, I spent a lot of time by myself. I never really took interest in sports or the activities other kids in the area were into. Most of my free time was spent drawing. In my teenage years, I had taken a big interest in skateboarding. The graphics, magazines and a strong connection to punk rock music opened up a whole new world of creative influence. Around this time, I was given the opportunity to spend the summer in Arizona with my Grandfather. Through this experience I met my uncle for the first time. He had a small butterfly tattooed on one hand and a mushroom tattooed on the other. I found this very intriguing. I had seen tattoos before but this is the first time it really made an impression.
Like most teenagers, I was struggling to define my identity. Along with some friends, I collected a few stick and poke tattoos. I was barely getting by in school but continued to put a lot of effort into art classes. I managed to finish high school but definitely was not cut out for college. I had saved up some money working with my father doing lawn service and snow removal. I wanted more tattoos! In the early 90's tattooing had emerged from flash based walk-in shops, to a creative custom tattoo environment. There were only a handful of shops in the Twin Cities at the time. After doing some research I decided to work with Brian Qualley at Acme Tattoo, owned by legendary tattooer, Don Nolan. Through this experience I felt that I had found my calling. While in the process of getting my sleeves tattooed, Brian opened his own shop. I convinced him to look at my collection of artwork and he agreed to take me on as an apprentice.
Can you talk about how you began focusing on mastectomy tattoos, and why this is an important aspect of your work? Do you remember the first one you did?
In 2012 I was approached to do a lace bra design on a breast cancer survivor named Shari. In the beginning I treated it like any other tattoo design. Focusing on the complex curves and getting the pattern applied symmetrically. After a few sessions I really got to know Shari and how much she’d been through. I had no idea how much it would change her life, or mine. We finished the tattoo and a few months later she comes in for photos and she tells me about how much her tattoo helped her. She said she felt sexy again. When I released her bra photos on social media it went “viral”. and got a lot of likes and attention from all over the world. I starting getting requests to do more decorative mastectomy work and for 3-D areola nipple pigmentation. By 2015, I had moved my family to San Diego to open a scar specific niche tattoo studio.
What is the process like in getting a mastectomy tattoo? How do you work with the clients to insure their happiness?
For the most part, I treat mastectomy tattooing like any other tattoo. Communication with my client is key. I do an in-depth consultation, especially if the client isn’t exactly sure what they want. I have many clients that travel to see me. We have those clients come in the day before tattooing for a face-to-face consultation to firm up their ideas and drawing. The more information and direction the client gives me, the happier they are with the results. There are other considerations when doing a mastectomy tattoo, with the focus being client comfort. Most of my clients use lidocaine numbing gel. We do a phone call to go over preparation and post care questions. It’s the same advice I give for any client coming in for large scale work. Don’t drink the night before, get a good nights rest and eat a solid meal a few hours before tattooing.
You also focus on top/bottom surgery tattoos as well...why was this something you were drawn to? How have your clients reacted after their tattoos?
I have been doing gender confirmation tattooing (top surgery) since I started doing medical work. I also offer phalloplasty tattooing (bottom surgery). My clients love their results. I like being able to change the way a person looks at themselves, literally. I’ve had numerous transgender clients tell me that my tattooing helped them with their gender dysphoria. That makes me very happy.
Your work, in general, is highly transformative, and requires so much trust and collaboration on both yourself and your client. How does this responsibility make you feel? Why do you think helping others has been your focus for your career?
To be honest, it is very stressful. I want my client to be 1000% happier with what they see when we’re done tattooing . I’m mindful that I’m working with someone whose life hasn’t been easy. When I am collaborating with my scar clients, we take extra time to be sure that they really want to get tattooed and love the idea they have. I’ve had a few perplexed tattoo artists ask me why I would want to do this kind of work full-time. And my response is, why wouldn’t I? I used to work with people that wanted to get a tattoo, now I work with people who need to get a tattoo. The impact is so much greater on my life and on my clients lives and there is no better feeling.
You studio has become a safe haven for so many people with really sensitive needs. How do you think other artists or studios can do the same for their clientele?
I think even the busiest artist or studio can create a safe personal environment. I think the most important thing is actually caring about your client and making them your #1 focus. You do that, and they are going to feel safe. When I was designing my newest shop, my clients needs were always considered first. I chose to have a private/by appointment only studio with no ringing telephones, walk-ins or distractions. Finally, and most importantly, music plays a huge role. It helps me connect with my client and sets the mood in the room. I prefer yacht rock, don’t you?
Any upcoming projects, travels, collabs, etc. that you'd like to share?
The only project I currently have is a personal one. I am restoring my grandfathers Airstream from the inside out. I currently travel to Minnesota regularly, doing medical work and working with my longtime clientele. I have a big trip planned with my 14-year-old going to Japan over spring break in March; we both share a love of art and sushi. I do have a collaboration, sitting on my desk, with my good friend and Berlin Tattooer, Brian Kelly. It’s a flash sheet. He already did his part, now I just have to do mine!