October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While Helios Tattoo Supply itself donates profits from its Pink Grips year-round, some of their sponsored artists take their involvement one step further. They help women who have lost their breasts to cancer take their bodies back with nipple replacement tattoos.
We spoke with Robbie Ripoll, Season 5 Ink Master contestant and sponsored artist from Helios Tattoo Supply, about being an artist, working on such important pieces, and the effect that work has had on him as a person.
Robbie, who’s been tattooing for almost 22 years works largely out of True to You Tattoo in Merit Island, Florida and Generation Ink in Lafayette Indian. Specializing in the New School style of tattooing, he’s also the co-creator of the Truly Rad Movement. Along with his brother, Jayvo Scott, Robbie works on healing relationships and improving self-love through entertainment that motivates, as well as inspires others. Part of these efforts includes providing nipple replacement tattoos. These tattoos are generally the last step in post-mastectomy reconstruction for women who have undergone breast cancer treatment.
So, Robbie, when did you first find out about doing nipple replacement tattoos?
Well, it was definitely many moons ago. I can’t remember exactly when, but it’s definitely been a while. What I do know is that by seeing them and doing them, I’ve gotten to really create a special relationship with people who have experienced [cancer] and it taught me a lot about living and surviving through cancer; a lot more than was imaginable. It made me realize it’s not [always] a death sentence.
What motivated you to want to do them when you started?
Honestly? What I saw was that they were getting done really poorly at plastic surgery offices. They weren’t colored right, and they didn’t show the beauty, the vibrancy, or the life that gives femininity to the areola and to a woman. [They] were just colors on the chest, they weren’t realistic and I just wanted to do what we [tattoo artists] do for someone who really needed it. Why not give these women the nipples they’ve always wanted?
What’s different about doing nipple replacement tattoos than doing standard “art” tattoos?
Pretty much everything is the same except for the circumstances on their end. I’ve never had one leave without tears of joy because she got back her womanhood. The replacement tattoos are an emotionally transformational tattoo for people. Sometimes [the experience for me is] odd. One of the last ones I did came in and she didn’t know what she wanted, and she ended up with just flowers all over her chest! You don’t always have to be “tattoo people” to understand the tattoo culture.
Do you find that most women already know about this option before they go through treatment?
Most of them are already in talks with their doctor when they come to see me, and one even had the surgeon stop by during the procedure. She wanted to see what I was doing with her handiwork. I think in this day and age, yes, most women already have the concept of “yes, I can do something with these scars after”. Your mom, your grandma, they’re on Facebook, they’ve heard about nipple replacements.
How long does a client typically have to wait for an appointment with you?
They usually don’t have a long wait time when I’m a guest artist, but if I’m at my home shops it can be a couple of weeks, to a couple of months. I travel all of the time. I’m whimsical with my schedule. I do certain conventions each year, and my route builds from that. I do guest spots from New York to California, so if people need me, I’m usually near them at some point.