Noel, what is the mission of the P.Ink foundation?’s mission is to change the culture of healing by challenging conventional notions of care.

Most breast cancer survivors are told they have two options after a mastectomy: reconstruction or no reconstruction. We believe survivors deserve a third option that most people aren’t familiar with: tattoos, for scar coverage or scar adornment or nipple replacement.

So we connect survivors and previvors who have had a mastectomy with tattoo ideas and artists who can help them move on in ways that doctors can’t. We do this online at and through real-world activations, such as Day, in which we curate an incredible day of healing with ink for survivors. Day takes place in 14 cities across North America this October.

Bigger picture: we believe there’s a massive gap between being cured and being healed after cancer. And we’d like to help close that gap, help survivors feel a bit closer to “whole” again.

How did P.Ink start?

I had the idea for when my sister-in-law Molly told the family she was diagnosed with breast cancer; that she’d be getting a double mastectomy; and that she’d be losing her nipples as part of the surgery.

This was something neither Molly or any of her five sisters had considered before — apparently, you can’t just get new nipples back at the cosmetic surgery shop after a mastectomy… You can survive, but you can’t flip a switch and get your old body back.

The doctor proposed to tattoo a circle on to create the appearance of a nipple, but Molly wanted authenticity. If there’s going to be a tattoo, she thought, then there might as well be something creative and empowering. It’s a very different take, and she wanted some help, so she asked the family for design ideas.

Unfortunately, nobody was talking about this online. There were no resources for people who wanted something different.

So I brought the idea for to the agency where I worked, CP+B, and with the help of many smart people and hands, we took it on as a pro-bono initiative. In early 2013 we launched on Pinterest — a beautifully designed collection of mastectomy tattoo inspirations and ideas, along with a vetted directory of tattoo artists (mostly female) who have mastectomy experience.

We also hired artist Colby Butler to provide a beautiful Pernambuco-blossom tattoo for Molly, and we taped the seven-hour tattoo process. The resulting video is a bit of love poem to survival and reclamation. Molly and Colby are an incredible, beautiful team.

Can you tell us more about the whole process? How do you select the women who will get tattooed?

Great question. We have two programs that facilitate complimentary tattoos: Day and the Fund. Days happen each October, and provide a high-touch, end-to-end experience led entirely by volunteers. But there’s a massive unmet need the other 364 days of the year too, and that’s why we created the Fund — we solicit donations, and those funds help us pay artists for their best work as they ink survivors in need.

We encouraged interested survivors to apply online, and we work with them on a first-come, first served basis. (In our view, anyone who’s been through a mastectomy deserves this kind of love, regardless of their financial situation.) When there’s money in the bank, we move to the next survivor on the list.

By opening this up, it’s been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, demand is incredible. We’ve had more than 1,500 survivors get on our list. On the other hand, it’s going to take years for us to get through this list without significant donations coming in. So we recently chose to hold off on accepting new applications — we’d rather focus on addressing current demand than anything else. It’s what any responsible business would do.

So we’re shining a brighter light on the need for donations. (Hello Oprah.)

What difference do these tattoos make in the survivors’ lives? What are some of the most touching stories you’ve heard since the beginning of the P.Ink journey?

Everyone responds differently. But each survivor gets a spark in their eyes, a newfound sense of assurance, a symbol for a new and exciting relationship they have with their body. What I hear most: the relationship with mirror changes dramatically. Of course, survivors believe they have always been beautiful and now, for the first time in many years, they no longer have to fight what they see in the mirror. Many tell me they want to take their shirt off and parade around the block. That’s a big shift.

One of my favorite stories comes from Mari Ruddy, a participant in our first Day in New York. She’s also now the local leader for Day Minneapolis. Here’s a quote (originally from Skin Deep magazine):

“I was talking to a barista in the coffee shop and she really wanted to see it (my new tattoo), so I showed it to her (she gave me a free coffee for my trouble) but I never, ever showed my scar to anybody. Now, everybody wants to see this tattoo and I can hardly wait to show it. Even when I’m home by myself and I have a chance to look at it – I feel so different about how my body looks. The lotus flower is right where my breast used to be. I look and can say to myself; ‘On this side, I have a breast and on this side, I have a lotus flower.’ It’s incredible and delicately balanced. Somehow it feels like I did something that created harmony for myself.”

Watching the video on your website, we were very surprised to see that the tattoo recipients are women of all ages, origins, ethnicities… In a society where tattoos are still perceived as a « young people thing » or an act of rebellion, why do you think these women choose to get tattooed?

They’re choosing tattoos for a number of reasons. But I’ll share two that come to mind.

First, it puts them in control over a situation that has controlled them for years.

Second, it’s the most radically disruptive and creative way to exert that control. That’s liberation, which strikes at the heart of what it means to be human: to be free.

Every now and then I get a chance to sit down with survivors just after they’ve been inked, to check in and see how they’re doing…it’s profound: you’re looking at someone who sees a clear dividing line in their life, one that separates who they were yesterday and who they’ll be tomorrow. And it’s articulated in the most beautiful way, one that visibly signifies control, empowerment, defiance. They know they’re out of the cocoon, that they’re beautiful and now it’s time to really fly. Those moments have been the most gratifying work of my life.

Tell us a bit about the tattoo artists; it’s such an intimate thing to tattoo someone’s scar… How do you choose the tattoos artists? How do the tattoo recipients collaborate with the artists to design the tattoo they will get?

We’re always on the lookout for artists who are great in three ways: artistic ability, technical skills, and bedside manner. It’s not always easy. Our artist advisory board (a handful of top artists we love and simplicity trust) helps us do a lot of that vetting — they point us in the direction of artists who might be a great fit, and sometimes they invite those artists to join them for a Day. Other times it’s a survivor who will share their experience working with an artist we might not have known about. We’ll take those referrals and add the artist to our directory.

How is the money used? How much does it cost to tattoo one woman?

Money donated to the Fund helps pay for mastectomy tattoos for survivors. Most of these tattoos run between $200 and $2,000, depending on the complexity of the situation; while one survivor may wish for simple areolas, another might have a more ‘challenging’ canvas with multiple scars across the chest and skin that’s been exposed to radiation. It’s important to remember that this is, ultimately, a healthcare experience. One that will leave its mark forever. That’s why we insist on paying only the top artists for their absolute best work.

We are sure that so many people will be as touched as we are by what P.Ink does. How can people get involved?

The most direct way to impact change is to donate.

The second most effective way to help survivors in need: help us find more experienced artists. We’re familiar with so many great artists, and we specifically need to showcase those who have mastectomy experience. We’re happy to post those at our directory.