Manchester resident Jason Lynn, 38, has been an artist as long as he can remember.
So he found it fitting to start his own tattoo shop in nearby Hampstead nine years ago, House of Madness Tattoo Emporium & Odditorium, and continues honing his skills surrounded by the oddities he collects on North Main Street.
Although the tattoo artist has encountered all kinds of requests during his career, it was only this past Labor Day weekend when he decided to try something new — a three-dimensional nipple reconstruction tattoo.
“More traditional-style tattoos is what I do,” Lynn said this September. “I was definitely going out on a limb on that one, trying something different.”
And for Lisa Gilberto, 44, that was exactly the kind of low-profile experience she was looking for.
Gilberto found out in 2015, at 41 years old, that she had aggressive breast cancer after her husband noticed a lump, she said. When she got it checked out, it was the bad news she was hoping not to hear.
Battling the cancer
Gilberto went straight to the Center for Breast Health at Carroll Hospital, she told the Times, and was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 28, 2015.
“In August I had my first round of chemo,” she said. “On Sept. 4, my daughter’s birthday, I lost my hair. It was a really long road. I had six rounds of chemo, I had 32 rounds of radiation, and I had ... reconstruction [surgery] using my own body tissue to reconstruct my breast.
“In doing so, it was obviously much nicer than after it was from the surgery to remove the breast cancer,” said Gilberto, “but it left a lot of scars, and very obviously no nipple, and a huge round scar on my breast.”
By the time she was finished with her surgeries and treatments, around April 2016, she said she was at a point in her life when she just didn’t want any more surgeries or procedures. She wanted to get the chance to try to be normal again.
So, despite recommendations from the Center for Breast Health on various ways to repair the appearance of her breast — including surgery to put on a new nipple and nipple reconstruction tattoos from renowned tattoo shop Little Vinnie’s in Finksburg — Gilberto dealt with the scarring throughout that year and the next.
“I want to say, you know the scarring, the most obvious things are the things that reminds you of where you’ve been,” she said. “So every day I would look at my breast, of course and it was not an image that I loved or liked.”
A perfect match
It was only when Gilberto went with a girlfriend to House of Madness this May, she said, that she gave nipple reconstruction tattooing any thought.
Her friend asked Lynn if he could tattoo her, and Lynn asked if he could see what the post-surgery area looked like.
“He said, ‘Oh my gosh, let me see what she’s dealing with,’ ” Gilberto said.
For Gilberto, a shy person, it was a big deal — as nobody but her doctors, husband, and a select few family and friends had seen her scars.
“I was like I can’t believe I’m going to go in this back room and just show this man my breast,” she said, “but with the support of my husband and my bestie, I did this.”
Lynn said it would be the first time he’d ever done this type of tattoo, but he wanted to try it, and that he would do it for free.
“I’ve been asked a few times by other clients of mine,” he said, “and I always turned it down because I didn’t know how well I'd be able to do something like that.
“But this time I said, ‘I don't mind doing it, but it’s the first time,’ ” Lynn said. “And it looks just like a nipple! I was pretty excited about that.”
The artist said he took a photo of Gilberto’s other nipple, printed it out, traced and mirrored it before duplicating it — and that because she had so much scar tissue and nerve damage, she didn’t really feel it.
Sometimes scar tissue is difficult to tattoo, he said, because it doesn’t always take ink well, but everything went smoothly that day.
“He did an amazing job,” Gilberto said. “I looked down for the first time in a long time and I didn’t see my scars.”
A month later
Gilberto said a month later, she is getting adjusted to her new normal, with a new chapter of her life beginning.
After being a store manager for 21 years, she left retail when she first discovered her breast cancer and now fosters two children in addition to caring for her two daughters.
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Looking down and seeing her nipple tattoo when she is getting dressed in the morning makes her feel so much better, she said.
“What Jason did for me, I don’t know how to thank him,” Gilberto said. “I don’t know what to say — but he really did an amazing thing for me.
“He doesn’t even know what he did because I’m horrible at expressing myself to people about my feelings on the breast cancer and how horrible it was,” she said.
And Lynn is on a high as well.
“She was so ecstatic,” he said remembering the day. “Her husband was happy, they’re all taking pictures. I was like, man, ‘I’ve achieved something really friggin’ cool.’
“It’s a little more fulfilling than doing a traditional tattoo on someone and just getting a handful of cash when you're done,” Lynn said. “Honestly, this was way, way better than that. She tried to pay me but I didn’t want any payment for it. I was happy just to do that.”
He says now he wants to offer three-dimensional nipple reconstruction tattoos free of charge as a way to support those who have battled breast cancer and the physical reminder of their struggle.