Meet David Allen, a tattoo artist and painter known for his work tattooing over the scars left behind by mastectomies of breast cancer survivors. We sat down to discuss his partnership with project:OM.
WHY DID YOU WANT TO BECOME A TATTOO ARTIST?
I like the one-on-one aspect where I can spend time with a client, whether that be two hours or five. And I can deliver art that caters directly to the person.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO TATTOOING OVER MASTECTOMY SCARS?
I had a client in New York, who had a single mastectomy – it was a reconstruction. She wanted me to tattoo on it, and I was hesitant because I have scarring myself. I had an open heart surgery on my sternum so I know that the skin is different, and that you have to be careful. But she kept insisting, so we set it up and I flew out to meet her.
It was transformative to realize that I was doing my craft, but also literally helping someone heal. The feeling was overwhelming. In that moment, my design and illustration background all came together in an effort to cover these scars. I knew I had to keep doing it.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR DESIGNS?
In covering these scars, the only thing that really works is botanical imagery. If these women have to have surgery again and their skin doesn’t line up perfectly afterwards, it’s fine because we can add a leaf or petal, and it’s easy to fix. It’s organic imagery with basic themes of life and growth. It lets these women take back control with something living.
DESCRIBE THE TATTOO PROCESS WITH THESE WOMEN.
The pieces are surprisingly big and on the chest, which is painful, but I think women can handle pain a lot better than guys. Because of the breast cancer surgery, some of the nerve endings are dead. So half the time, they can’t feel the pain, and the other half, they can - and it’s an 8/10 on the pain scale. So it’s my job to notice that and take breaks.
WHAT’S THE MOST DIFFICULT PART ABOUT IT ALL?
It can wear you out emotionally and I’m learning how to handle that. I’ve actually been going to therapy myself to learn how to have the skills of a therapist. If someone’s talking to you about death for two days straight, what do you do with that and how do you not bring that home? I think the stronger I get emotionally, the more I’ll be able to take on.
WHAT’S THE MOST FULFILLING PART?
Being able to become a part of their process. These women have faced death, lost control and felt the need to just be alone. I have to wrap my head around all of that. It’s this long timeline, and for some reason I get to hop into their lives for one day, give them my undivided attention and be present. I listen to their story, and create an image that’s custom to their scarring and their healing process. I become a vessel to fuel change or give control.
YOU’VE CREATED THE ARTWORK FOR OUR LIMITED EDITION PROJECT:OM YOGA MAT & TOWEL. WHAT WAS THAT PROCESS LIKE?
I actually did something different this time, and went to a florist to buy flowers first. I took the flowers, arranged and photographed them. And from those photographs, I drew them, just like I would with a female client. I painted a silhouette of a woman’s form, and then brought the drawing onto the body like I do the tattoos.
Learn more about David at allentattoo.com.