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A Healer with a Gun: She Tattoos for Cancer

tuenight tattoo cheryl dumesnil amy justen

“Angel of Abundance” watercolor and tattoo. (Photo courtesy of Amy Justen/@shhhmagic)

In 2016 it’s not unusual to find out your co-worker has an elaborate sleeve tattoo hidden under her Ann Taylor blouse. But in 1990, when Amy Justen was a student at The Art Institute of Chicago, “tattoos were still very much part of the subculture of rebels,” says Justen. When Amy’s cousin, a Hell’s Angel fully engaged in the biker lifestyle, invited Amy to apprentice in his shop in Texas, she decided this was “not a career path for a young woman from a good Catholic family.” She stayed in Chicago and completed her art degree instead.

After graduation, while Amy was pursuing a career in fine art, earning critical acclaim but not enough cash, two Chicago tattoo artists, Robert Hixon and Wayne Borucki, encouraged her to pick up a tattoo gun. “I was super green and had no idea what I was doing,” Amy says. “Tattooing is an unforgiving art form. I had to put all other mediums aside while I learned. It still blows my mind on the daily that perfect strangers allow me, pay me even, to permanently mark their bodies.”

And that’s what Amy has been doing for 20 years. Now a deeply respected artist working in San Francisco and Maui, Amy brings the skills of a fine artist and the energy of a healer to every client she meets.

Recently, TueNight spoke to Amy about her tattoos, healing and her new venture to help women recover from breast cancer via body art.

How has your understanding of tattoo — as an art, as a ritual, as a transformative experience — evolved over the years?

I had an innate understanding from the beginning that this was a sacred, ancient rite of passage. I’m a deeply spiritual person, but in the early years, I felt I had to hide this aspect of myself. This whole tattoo scene was a man’s world. You had to be tough. There was no room for spirituality. But I secretly held the intention that every tattoo I did would be a sacred rite of passage, whether the client was aware of it or not. As the industry grew, people’s ideas of tattooing caught up with mine, and I started attracting clients who wanted that kind of experience.

Often we hear tattoo stories from the perspective of the recipient. What is the process like from your perspective?

Each tattoo starts with a consultation. I have the gift of clairvoyance, so as clients describe their vision, they flash mental pictures of what they want. I can see these pictures, so it’s easy for me to draw the designs. I meditate every day and approach each experience in a clear and grounded way, so I can offer my best to each client.

tuenight tattoo cheryl dumesnil getting tattoed

Amy in action. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Dumesnil)

I have experienced incredible transformations with people. Tattooing can be like truth serum. I can’t tell you how many clients have said during the course of their appointment, “I’ve never told anybody this before, but . . . ” I have to be a counselor, a priestess, a shaman and nurse, as well as an artist. At the end of the day, I sit in meditation again to release any energy I’ve picked up from the client and to clear my energy out of their tattoo. Once the application is complete, the tattoo belongs to the client. I take myself out of the equation.

tuenight tattoo cheryl dumesnil final

Cheryl happy with her final product. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Dumesnil)

This past month you experienced a career first, working with a breast cancer survivor. Will you share that story?

Once the application is complete, the tattoo belongs to the client. I take myself out of the equation.”

About three years ago, a long-time client contacted me. She had just received a breast cancer diagnosis. She was going to have to have a quadrectomy performed, removing a third of her right breast, including the nipple. She wanted to know the options for tattooing. I told her it was totally possible; she would just have to wait until the breast was healed. She had an incredible surgeon, and her reconstruction was flawless. However, they were not able to rebuild the nipple. Initially, she thought she would have a picture tattooed over her breast. When I saw how beautiful her reconstruction was, I suggested she just have the nipple tattooed on.

I tried to connect her with Darlene DiBona, an artist on the East Coast who had done a few of these tattoos. They weren’t able to connect, so she asked me to do the work. I had never done one of these tattoos before, so I got some advice from Darlene. Since my client still had one intact nipple, I had my reference right there in front of me. I was essentially doing a color portrait of her nipple. It took about an hour to mix a color that matched her other areola. The tattoo itself didn’t take very long, maybe an hour. I shaded it to look dimensional and was amazed by the results.

When I finished, my client was completely blown away. From three feet away, you cannot tell it’s a tattoo. In fact, unless you see her from the side, you can’t tell at all.

tuenight tattoo nipple amy justen
Amy’s client granted permission to use this photo. (Photo courtesy of Amy Justen/@shhhmagic)

My client had no idea how powerful the tattoo experience would be or how disfigured she had felt before receiving the tattoo. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears of joy and grief. It helped her process the experience of breast cancer and made her feel whole again.

I was totally blown away by how powerful it was. Energetically, it was totally different from a picture tattoo. It’s hard to describe, but it was more like giving her a part of herself back. I knew this was bigger than anything I had experienced in the tattoo industry thus far. Over the course of the next few days, as I sat in meditation, the idea for Rosebud Breast Cancer Foundation came to me.

What was the impetus to work with cancer patients?

I saw how many women really need this service and how many lives I would be able to affect by offering it. But tattoos are expensive, and while I know many women will pay anything to feel whole, many can’t afford it after the financial hardship of cancer treatment. I decided I would set aside 10 percent of whatever I earn doing these tattoos, so for every 10 tattoos I do, I can offer one for free.

The idea for Rosebud Breast Cancer Foundation grew from that. The mission is to raise money to offer this service for free to women around the world. My vision is to establish a worldwide network of tattoo artists to help women reclaim their breasts after cancer treatment. For me, this is the ultimate next step in marrying tattoos and healing.

tuenight tattoo amy justen video
Amy preparing for a video shoot. (Photo courtesy of Amy Justen/@shhhmagic)

Rosebud Breast Cancer Foundation is in development. Amy is seeking a lawyer to help establish non-profit status and serve as legal counsel on the board of directors, a designer to develop the website and an assistant to reach out to breast centers and plastic surgeons. You can contact Amy Justen at amyjusten@hotmail.com.

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Cheryl Dumesnil

Cheryl Dumesnil's books include two collections of poems, Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes and In Praise of Falling, and the anthology Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, co-edited with Kim Addonizio. A freelance writer and writing coach, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her two sons. She's been inked six times, and counting. You can find her on Twitter at @cheryldumesnil.

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