J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

Tattoo My Story: Breast Cancer, Ink, and Human Experience

All you have to do is see me in a short-sleeved shirt to know that I like tattoos.

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At my sister’s wedding, September 2013

I’m a storyteller, so each tattoo has its reason, but I also know people whose reasoning behind their ink is, “Because I felt like it.”

When I followed a link from the socially conscious media site Upworthy, I wasn’t looking to “see tattoos in a new light” as the title promised. Mostly, I’m curious about people’s perceptions of body modification and reactions to it, as I’ve experienced a range of responses myself. My favorite is still the woman who walked into a wall at California Pizza Kitchen while staring at me.

The video that I ended up watching was the (slightly NSFW) story of Molly Ortwein, a 47-year-old breast cancer survivor, who had her reconstructed breasts tattooed with pernambuco blossoms–a Brazilian flower known for its rarity and resilience. The less-than-3-minute video highlights the power of tattooing as catharsis or a mode of healing for women whose lives and bodies have been changed by a disease.

This is what I love about the Internet. The possibility of connecting to someone you would otherwise never know, and the ability to recognize a reflection of yourself or something with which you can empathize.

For me, this tattoo is part of a healing story.


This quote from one of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, also serves a particularly fortifying purpose.


“I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.
…and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.”



The lotus is a symbol of perseverance. Of determination and beauty in the midst of muck. It grows in sewers and muddy water, and is a symbol of purification and fortune in Buddhist mythology.


It’s on my “Light” arm, paired with an as-yet-unfinished Tree of Life.

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My “Dark” arm includes a quill-pen-dagger, and a little girl stabbing a teddy bear, which reminds the editor in me that sometimes we have to be willing to destroy something we love.

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Tattooing is part of my story. I felt comfortable in my body and my identity once I had ink on my skin. There is much more to go, more stories to tell before I’m done, and I am happy to be in good company with a community of inked-up storytellers, like those over at Pen & Ink.

Molly Ortwein’s story didn’t end with her own ink, either. Personal Ink, or P.ink, is a non-profit organization (born from Molly’s experience, to the best of my understanding) that pairs tattoo artists with breast cancer survivors seeking to have their scars enhanced in a way that makes them feel beautiful. I believe that art in all forms–both the viewing and the making–can be therapeutic for humans dealing with difficult situations, and tattooing should not be discounted simply because it isn’t always viewed as “real art.”

It’s not as though tattooing is a new cultural phenomenon–it’s an ancient tradition with its history rooted in civilizations across the globe–but in the United States it is often still  regarded as Other or taboo. With increasing attention on stories like Molly and P.ink–and doing my own bit to show that tattooed people can be just as lovely and hardworking as “normal people”–I’m encouraged that our 21st-century American culture may finally be ready to remove its blinders and see this form of art and healing for what it really has to offer.


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This entry was posted on September 18, 2014 by in Discussing, Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , , .


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