By Cindy Dampier
David Allen describes his work in the most basic terms: “I’m a tattooer,” he says. “I tattoo.”
It’s a bit of intentional understatement, Allen is a highly sought-after tattoo artist with a specialty in mastectomy tattoos, and a declaration about how he does his work. Which has a lot to do with empathy, or the art of making himself small, so that he can see the big picture.
In “Grace,” a new documentary from Chicago filmmaker Rachel Pikelny, Allen’s work is featured as the film follows the post-treatment journey of a suburban mom and breast cancer survivor.
“This is like a resurrection,” she tells Allen in the film as he tattoos over her mastectomy scars. “What you’re doing right now has the potential to reshape the way I see my whole body.”
It’s an emotional moment in a moving portrayal of one woman’s struggle to come to terms with her body and her femininity after cancer.
“It’s an intimate profession,” Allen says a moment later, “and if you let it and you let your guard down, it can change you as well. And I think that’s an honor.”
Allen, who was featured in a Tribune story in fall 2016, has absorbed a lot of change as a result of his work with mastectomy patients.
He has spent much of the last year and a half exploring ways in which his work can intersect with the medical care of breast cancer patients. He was approached by the Journal of the American Medical Association to write an article about his work and how it enables continued healing.
“They called what I do the intersection of art and medicine,” he says. “That really humbled me. And it opened people’s eyes.” Increased exposure to the medical field through the journal “added an additional element of respect,” he says, “and opened a lot of doors.”
He now speaks regularly at breast cancer conferences across the U.S. and abroad: “It’s like doctors and plastic surgeons and experts and then this tattooer,” he says, but notes that he has unique insights to offer: “I realized that I spend four to five hours with a woman, and doctors spend 15 minutes at a time, so I’m kind of privy to different things.”
Recently, he has been talking with doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital about how his work might be offered to breast cancer patients there, and he has worked with two Minnesota plastic surgeons on ideas for how breast reconstruction might be planned in advance with scars placed to enable easier concealment by tattoos.
His work has also gained artistic notice, he will be a part of an upcoming project on beauty by graphic design icon Stefan Sagmeister; and his work was featured in a selection of tattoos as a part of the “Is Fashion Modern?” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. “I went to see it, and it blew my mind,” he says. ” ‘Oh my God, I have work up at MOMA.’ ” He is also working on an exhibit of his work to be shown at the International Museum of Surgical Science in the Gold Coast.
And, of course, he has continued to help women who come to him to transform their scars into art. So many women have sought out his services that he is planning to expand his reach by training other artists to do mastectomy work.
“I have a queue of hundreds of women, and I can’t possibly meet that queue, so I’m a bottleneck in a sense. Why not educate people if this isn’t really happening like I would like it to be?”
To enable that teaching, he has embarked on his most ambitious project yet: a new space in Ravenswood, a loft-style studio for both tattooing and education. “I want to have people in from all over the world, to learn,” he says.
New technology will allow him advanced 3-D imaging of his clients, so that he can better fit tattoos to scarred bodies, and a personalized atmosphere will help create a calming space. After months of obsessing over the details, from a soothing collection of art to a bathroom specially equipped for his mastectomy clients, he will open the new space in May.
“Though all this has been a little daunting,” he says, “the community has really jumped in behind me, especially here in Chicago.” Allen, inspired by the spirit of the women he helps, doesn’t see an end in sight. “I don’t know what’s next,” he says, “but doors are opening all over.”