The Nipple Angel: tattooist Shelley Black is on a mission to empower breast cancer survivors
An ordinary afternoon at work nearly 15 years ago turned sinister for Shelley Black when her heart began thrashing against her chest as though it was trying to free itself from captivity.
Legs beneath the desk, arms dangling either side of her body and mind racing, fear began to sink in.
Shelley had just given birth to her first child, Bethany, and the new mum hadn’t any idea what could be wrong.
“I thought I was having a heart attack,” she said.
“I had some tests done and it was found I had really bad thyroid disease. The specialist said I was the worst case he’d seen in about 11 years.”
Within days of the diagnosis, Shelley left her personal assistant role and started radiation therapy.
She said not working sent her into a pit of boredom, a place where she would rediscover a childhood hobby she’d long forgotten about.
“I’d always loved drawing as a kid but I’d never really done it seriously because my parents were the type that said ‘You can’t make a career out of art’.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’d love to do some tattoo script for my daughter’s room’. I couldn’t do it and all the tattoo magazines I was buying didn’t have quite what I was looking for. So, naively, I contacted a local tattoo studio and said ‘Hi, I’m a mum, I don’t want to become a tattoo artist, but this is what I’m trying to do. I’ve got a bit of time off work, if you could teach me how to draw, I could clean your studio or get you lunch’.
“The owner contacted me and said ‘Bring in your portfolio’. So, I went down to the studio and honestly, I nearly died.
“I was like ‘What am I doing here? This is completely out of my comfort zone’. There were skulls on the walls, young guys with tattoos up to their necks and I thought to myself ‘You are so stupid’.
As the self-proclaimed square’s eyes panned the Ascot Vale parlour once over, she started thinking of excuses plausible enough to warrant her escape.
But when the tattooist flicked through the pages of Shelley’s work, he extended her a surprising offer.
“He said ‘Wow, these are really good. Do you want to become a tattoo artist?’
“I stopped dead in my tracks. It was one of those really weird moments where you go, ‘Do I take a chance or not?’ I didn’t have anything else to do, so I said ‘Yeah, okay’.
“I started and the first time I put a machine in my hands, it was like ‘Where have you been all my life?’
“You know those Oprah moments? It was kind of like that. I started tattooing and absolutely threw myself into it.”
After working for a handful of studios across Melbourne and finessing the art of body ink, Shelley decided to open her own studio on Torquay’s Bell Street.
It was here that she was first asked to attempt a nipple tattoo on a client who had undergone a mastectomy.
“It was something I’d never thought of or looked into. I researched it and it was basically the same as what I was doing at the time, except usually these nipple tattoos are done by inexperienced doctors or beauticians.”
Shelley trusted her instincts and completed the tattoo using three-dimensional shading.
To her disbelief, it worked.
“I thought ‘This is something I could do’, especially because I’m a female and not some big, bad bikie tattoo person.”
It wasn’t long before groups of breast cancer survivors were phoning Shelley to secure their appointments.
One client’s mother said she was “The Nipple Angel”, and the name’s stuck ever since.
“They feel like women again,” she said.
“They come in kind of apprehensive and not wanting to go through another procedure, but I always tell them ‘This is the good bit, this is the end. You’ll walk out of here feeling like your old self again’.”
She said although the process was rewarding, it came with its challenges, too.
“I’ve heard some awful stories. Everybody thinks you have breast cancer and then you get your boobs done, but it can be such an intense process that lasts for ages. It’s really mentally draining.”
One particular story that has left its mark on Shelley is of two sisters who both tested positive for the BRCA gene.
She said after the siblings’ breasts were removed, they each had a total hysterectomy.
Neither women would become mothers.
“Sometimes I break down during the sessions and have to take a minute.
“It’s intense because you’re hearing stories, sharing close personal space with somebody, and I’m especially trying to make them comfortable.
“When I ask people if I can take photos of them so that I can show other women, a lot of them ask me not to have their face in the frame.
“There’s still that element of feeling shame that they’ve had their breasts removed, which was kind of a shock to me.”
Shelley said while she could only listen to women’s experiences with breast cancer and not relate, she hoped her art practice would return a part of themselves that was taken with their illness – their identities.
“It’s incredible. I didn’t realise until I started just how important it is, and how much that the little thing I can do for these women; it’s like the end of their whole cancer journey.
“I get to do the nice bit, basically, and it usually ends in tears.”
Shelley’s studio Tidal Tattoo Torquay is located at 38-40 Bell Street, Torquay.
Due to Facebook and Instagram’s nudity policy, Shelley’s accounts have been removed on more than one occasion.
To check out her designs, follow @TidalTattooTorquay or search “The Nipple Angel” on Facebook to see her nipple reconstruction work.