This story by features writer Heather Salerno ran in Life & Style on Oct. 21. Photo by Tania Savayan.
Carrie Pataky enters an exam room at a plastic surgeon’s office in Scarsdale and introduces herself to Constance Rogers , who wears a thin, blue paper gown that covers her chest.
As Pataky unpacks equipment from a small rolling suitcase — squeeze bottles of ink, a hand-held, electric machine, sterile needles, powder-free latex gloves — she offers to share her iced coffee with Rogers, and the two begin an easy conversation about the procedure that’s about to take place.
It won’t take very long, about 15 minutes or so. And Rogers shouldn’t feel any pain, just some vibration from the machine.
“I hope I just feel better,” says Rogers, 52, a divorced mother of two and Poughkeepsie resident, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. “That it gives me back confidence.”
That is Pataky’s job as a tattoo artist, one with a unique talent for making survivors like Rogers feel beautiful again. Women have come from as far away as England to see the 44-year-old Yonkers native, who has built a solid niche tattooing nipples and areolas on women after breast cancer surgery.
For these women, Pataky is the last step in a long, harrowing journey through treatment and recovery. She’s giving them an exceptional gift: their self-esteem, and with that, the ability to move forward with their lives.
Even with full nipple reconstruction, a post-mastectomy patient’s breasts lack the skin pigmentation that makes them look completely natural. Some survivors say it’s like looking at a blank canvas; others have described their breasts as a face with no features.
Over the last six years, Pataky has worked on more than 500 women. Her specialty is rare among tattoo artists; most often specially trained nurses in a surgeon’s office — or even the doctors themselves — are the ones doing the areola tattoos.
Pataky says other tattoo artists have told her that they entered the field because they wanted to create art‚ not areolas.
“I believe if we have a skill and a talent in putting ink on the skin, we should use it the best we can, for whatever we can,” says Pataky. “Whether it’s putting a flower on you…or giving you areolas.”
Gently, Pataky opens Rogers’ gown and takes a long, slow look at her chest.
After doctors discovered a large tumor in her right breast in spring 2010, Rogers decided to have a single mastectomy; after that, plastic surgeon Dr. Neal Goldberg — whose Scarsdale office Pataky is visiting on this day — crafted a new breast out of fat and tissue transplanted from Rogers’ abdomen.
The operation had complications, and Rogers also had to go through chemotherapy and radiation, which caused her shoulder-length hair to fall out and left the skin under her arm raw.
At first, Rogers says, she was focused on simply beating cancer, not additional procedures. But this year, she felt well enough to return to Goldberg for nipple reconstruction. He pushed her to make an appointment with Pataky, to whom he’s referred patients for the last five years.
“The psychological recovery of losing a gender-defining body part is a big deal,” says Goldberg.
“There are a good amount of patients who don’t even want to bother going forward with nipple reconstruction, let alone the areola. I try to encourage it because I think it’s a very small step that makes a very big difference.”
Placing several bottles of ink on a counter, Pataky slowly drips different shades into a tiny plastic pot. Although some other artists use pre-made colors, she prides herself on creating her own.
“With her, she’ll be a cocoa red with a little bit of black and maybe a drop of gray,” she says.
Using a toothpick, Pataky brushes a bit onto Rogers’ left nipple. Though the ink looks burgundy in the pot, it blends perfectly with Rogers’ coffee-colored skin. Unilateral mastectomies are tricky, says Pataky, because she needs to carefully match the ink on the reconstructed breast to the natural pigment on the other.
“Usually nipples are a little bit darker than the areola,” she tells Rogers. “But in your case it’s not. It’s the same.”
Next, she picks up a surgical tape measure and precisely notes the size of Rogers’ left areola: It’s 30 millimeters wide and 20 millimeters high. Again, Pataky uses an ink-dipped toothpick to trace a circle on the other breast, outlining the missing areola’s border much like a painter sketches in pencil before turning to more permanent oils.
“You have to match the color and the shape,” she says. Rogers’ measurements are “kind of like an egg.”
Pataky never planned on this sideline when she started as an apprentice tattoo artist in Mount Vernon in 1991, or when she opened a tattoo shop in Yonkers in 1998. Over the years, she’d occasionally touch up faded areola tattoos, or fix work done at a surgeon’s office.
Then in 2006, a woman came into the shop and asked Pataky if she did areola tattooing. She answered honestly — never from start to finish — but offered to give it a try. The woman left pleased. Coincidentally, a second woman came in the following week with the same request. She, too, was happy with the results.
From there, word spread about Pataky’s skills. And she wanted to improve, so she completed advanced certification courses in medical tattooing, along with heavy training in color theory to better mix customized ink colors. (For those who haven’t had nipple reconstruction, Pataky has also mastered a technique that creates a 3-D illusion.)
She also continued that education while training to become a licensed esthetician and laser technician. Last year, she launched her own spa, Cariangel’s Total Laser, Spa & Skincare, on Central Park Avenue in Yonkers.
At the spa, Pataky has a room designated for cosmetic and medical tattooing, but she almost always meets breast cancer survivors at their surgeon’s office. That way, the cost is more likely to be covered by insurance as part of the patient’s reconstruction. (Pataky charges up to $300 for one breast, and $600 for two.)
Right now, she works with nine doctors in Westchester, Manhattan and the Bronx. Her services are much sought after. There are now more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, with the American Cancer Society estimating that more than 226,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women this year.
Dr. Goldberg says that he doesn’t know of any other area tattoo artist with this specialty.
“I don’t even have anything to compare it to,” he says, “because I don’t know anyone else who does this for a living.”
Pataky powers up the tattoo machine, which leaps to life with a loud, furious buzz.
“You’re good?” she asks, turning to Rogers, who leans back on the tilted exam table. “Because this is good. We’re making it happen.”
Pataky tells Rogers that she’s going to touch one spot with the needle to start: “Do you feel anything?”
“A little bit,” answers Rogers.
“No, lighter than a pinch.”
Excited, Pataky tells Rogers to mention that she feels sensation in her nipple to Dr. Goldberg at her next appointment.
“Most don’t feel it back in their nipple. You’re the second person only in all the years I’m doing it that’s ever had sensation back in their nipple,” she exclaims. “That’s really good!”
Pataky begins to shade the rest of the area, describing her method as she goes. Pinching tissue between her thumb and index finger, she works the needle briskly from side to side, almost as if she were airbrushing on the ink.
Every minute or so, Pataky cleans away droplets of blood with a baby wipe and surveys her progress.
Unlike a decorative tattoo, she says, the goal isn’t to work overall color deep into the skin.
“I’m moving in different directions so that when it heals, it doesn’t heal as a solid color,” she says. “It heals as one color in different shades, because that’s how an areola is.”
As predicted, within 15 minutes Pataky is done and issuing instructions.
For the next week, Rogers needs to wear a loose-fitting T-shirt and coat the tattoo four times a day with Vaseline. No antibiotic creams: that will break down the color. If she needs to wear a bra, she should pad it with a nonstick bandage. The more fresh air the tattoo gets, she says, the better it will heal.
Before handing Rogers a mirror, Pataky makes a promise: “When it’s first done, it’s going to look much darker than the other side. Because you do bleed, so it makes the color darker looking. But when it heals, it’ll be the color of the other side.”
Rogers angles the mirror toward her chest. At first, she’s quiet. Then her face breaks into a smile.
Before, she later confides, she would ignore the sadness she sometimes felt when she looked at herself. The uneven color of her breasts were yet another memento of the cancer that invaded her body. Now, “it’s less of a reminder,” she says. “It just clears your mind of it.”
Pataky smiles back at Rogers. “You’re complete now,” she says. “I’m your end stage.”
A few weeks earlier, Pataky paused for a moment between spa clients to reflect. When she first started tattooing breast cancer survivors, she’d go home in tears after every session.
“Because I can’t imagine what they feel. I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” she says.
But one day, a client grabbed her hand and asked what was upsetting her. She said Pataky should rejoice because she makes survivors like her finally feel complete.
“You’re making me a woman again,” she told Pataky. “Doctors can make us look wonderful in clothes. Out of clothes? Not so much.”
After that, she says, “I never cried again.”
So although Pataky now has her spa, she says she’ll close it down if a surgeon calls her to an office — even if it’s to tattoo just one patient.
“This is my heart, doing this kind of work,” she says.
“Doing this, other than having my kids, there’s nothing I’ve done that has ever been so rewarding. Nothing.”