David Allen's story
ghd's pink campaign is going into its 15th year and for this reason are partnering with Chicago-based mastectomy tattoo artist, David Allen.
Since 2010, David has been using art to support women affected by breast cancer to conceal their scars and is widely recognised within the medical community, working with oncologists for advice when creating these intricate designs.
As the only editable design, flowers are used as they symbolise life, rebirth and femininity, empowering women and giving back the control over their bodies.
“I had open heart surgery when I was 9 months old – and so I was aware of scars and markings on the body. You start to know your good and bad angles – what is and isn’t comfortable.
I had a woman in New York keep getting in touch about my tattoos. She said she liked the look of femininity of the tattoos I create. She had had a single mastectomy and construction and wanted me to tattoo where her scarring was, but no - I hadn’t ever done this kind of tattoo before and knew that the skin would have healed differently. She was so persistent that I ended up flying to Baltimore to meet her and discuss with her further.
During this process I was hands on with someone and watching them heal. I was using my craft and work which overwhelmed me – I had to take a break and weep.
She cried the whole time; her husband was also in tears because she wasn’t previously able to look at herself because she didn’t recognise herself and her body. Suddenly throughout this process, her body became hers again – she took control and decided how she wanted her body to look when it had been previously something she wasn’t able to control. It was overwhelming. You don’t often get to help someone and see direct results. It’s hard not to be selfish because you do get a return as well.
I posted it online once the work was complete and it went viral. So, I had an influx of demand from other women who had seen it and wanted something similar, so I started doing a few more.
Now, I do between 6 and 8 mastectomy tattoos a month – it’s a long process and takes a whole day to complete. The process is collaborative. I work on different designs and share them with the women, asking for genuine feedback and then we work together to make the changes to capture her vision too. Some women have a chemo port, or horizontal line scars from their surgery, or dimpling on the side and they stand in the mirror and will show me these scars – something for them is so “obvious” but for me is not – I don’t see them how they see themselves. So, they will then set a hierarchy of what’s important for them. That then dictates the design.
It’s amazing to be able to be a small fraction of people’s lives and stories.”
“I choose floral and botanical imagery because it’s organic: it can be altered and tweaked. Some women have cancer recurrence, sadly, and with floral imagery you can add a branch, a leaf, a petal.
Some women have connections with different types of flowers: it can be a childhood memory for example. Women seem to attach meaning to very specific flowers. They find beauty within it whether it’s rebirth, life.”
THE TATTOOING PROCESS
“The process I go through with my clients involves time spent to get to know the people. Every woman communicates differently, every person has a different view of their own body. It’s important for me to understand how they see themselves and meet them where they are as opposed to push my view on them. That’s more important than the actual tattoo itself – that they get a final design that matches them.
The consultation is the most important because they get a feeling for who I am, and they can learn to trust and I can help allay their fears or concerns. On the flip side, it’s important for me to get a feel for who they are, to meet them where they are: we mirror each other, and that process creates a bond.
The majority of women choose not to view the progress of the tattoo, they want to wait until the end. There’s a lot of trust in that. When we get near the end, I know there’s a build-up. Not because of me or what is happening but because of the time spent from the beginning of the process: radiation, chemo, surgery… there’s no end in sight and women have to let happen whatever was going to happen to them. One foot in front of the other. And then at the end there’s this reclaiming of whoever they are. It’s bigger than me, bigger than this process.
I love what I do because I get to see direct change, transformation happen. There’s a shift that happens during the process, it’s a little overwhelming. It’s beautiful. When the women look at themselves in the mirror for the first time, it’s joy, it’s transcendent. They sit differently, their posture changes. Either they’ll cover themselves because they take back control of their body again or they’ll show everyone in the room because they start to be proud again of this area that was “disfigured” by their own words. To see that change, it’s drastic. It’s empowering. I’m human, I’m very flawed but when I hear people’s story and how they face death, it gives me strength. There’s a perspective shift that happens when you see their battle with death and their fear of loss. It really puts you in your place and you understand things differently.
There’s a lot of “thank you’s” but it’s not about that. The women have made it happen: it’s their process, their decision. It’s not about the work I’m doing it’s about the empathy and the message behind it that people matter because they exist. And to be able to use your craft and your skills to contribute to that, that means everything.”
COLLABORATION WITH GHD
“The connection with ghd and this partnership makes sense. The amount of effort, thought and money they put into helping women with cancer all over the world is extraordinary. I know I chose to do it because I believed in the company.
When I work with my clients, it takes time, we build back their confidence together and these incredible women open up to me. Much like that time you spend with your hairstylist, that intimacy and power of transformation is akin to one another.
It’s beautiful to see how hairdressers enable women to feel beautiful. When you think of stylists and the time they spend with their clients - the validation that happens when you hear someone’s story, when you’re listening, when you’re present. That matters. There’s healing in that.
I see similarities between what I do and the role of a hairdresser during a sensitive time, like going through cancer and chemotherapy. Hairdressers will tell you what they know about their clients – you hear of tragedy, illness, pain and loss.
Stylists help in the process of reclaiming femininity especially during sensitive times when facing hair loss. There’s definitely synergy between my role and theirs - hairdressers enable women to feel beautiful and build in confidence.”
CREATING THE INK ON PINK COLLECTION
“ghd invited me over to London, they opened their doors and let me sit down with product designers and learn about the printing process. We designed a hair straightener together. I treated it as if it were an arm or a leg, a person’s body. I did the same process that I would with the mastectomy tattoos. I picked the flowers, I photographed them, hand drew different patterns and we came up with 30 to 40 ideas. It was incredible.
The whole process was wrapped in love and emotion. I was pretty hands on which was so important to me. What I do is very insular so when this message and these women’s story is out on a grander scheme, that’s beautiful. I want people to see the power and the beauty of these women and the choices they made.” - David Allen