Leslie Kern of North Potomac never thought she would be a “tattoo person.”
Then again she never thought she would be faced with breast cancer.
While she said she tried not to be judgmental of others who had them, she never thought that she’d find herself in a tattoo parlor, but she said her experience has changed her life.
Like other breast cancer patients, Kern was referred to tattoo artist Tina Marie, owner of Tantric Tattoo and Boutique in Sandy Spring, by her reconstructive surgeon, following a bilateral mastectomy.
The doctor mentioned nipple reconstruction to her several times, but she wasn’t interested in restoring something “that had tried to kill her.”
A friend who had also had breast cancer revealed her 3-D nipple tattoos, done by Marie.
“They were amazing, so I went to visit Tina,” said Kern. “I fell in love with her right away; she’s such a neat person, extremely compassionate, very professional, and amazingly talented.”
She ended up with flowers tattooed on her breast, with a little bumblebee.
“The bee is to ward off future cancer, and as a reminder that I got stung, but didn’t go down,” Kern said.
She said the experience took her from being self-conscious to being proud.
“In the locker room, I used to be the one huddled in the corner afraid someone would see my scars, and from there I became a flasher,” Kern said. “It has totally changed how I feel about myself.”
Kern said her mother was totally against the idea of her getting a tattoo.
“Now she wants to meet Tina, since she totally changed my life,” she said.
Working on cancer patients, particularly those who have had breast cancer, has become a large part of Marie’s business. Several area surgeons refer patients to her. Marie said she tries to work with each of the patients in terms of cost to get the tattoo. Sometimes, if the procedure is done in a doctor’s office, a portion of the cost is paid by insurance companies .
“Tattoos heal people and change people’s lives for the better,” she said. “They also have a lot of meaning, so for cancer patients, it gives them a sense of normalcy, and part of their lives back.”
Christine Brophy of Montgomery Village said her reconstructive plastic surgeon recommended a nipple restoration tattoo, but she decided to go for something totally different, as well. Following her bilateral mastectomy and radiation, she was left with discoloration and asymmetry.
“I didn’t want to re-create what wasn’t part of my life anymore,” she said.
Brophy went to see Marie, thinking she wanted three small lily of the valley buds to symbolize her fight with breast cancer, and to memorialize her mother’s and sister’s deaths from cancer. She left with a different idea.
She and her husband went to a restaurant, where they started sketching out ideas on a paper tablecloth.
They included objects that symbolized what was important to her, such as family, running, cooking and karma. Marie translated her ideas into a tapestry. They were so pleased with her final design, they had it put on canvas, and it hangs as artwork in their living room.
“I had originally told Tina that I didn’t want it to show because I didn’t want people to think I was trashy, but she assured me that I would be fine,” Brophy said. “She was right. I am at the beach in my bikini and am so proud that it shows. It’s a big healing thing, and not a result of some mindless drunken binge.”
Brophy said her tattoo made her feel like a weight had been lifted, and she never has regretted her decision.
“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see scars and disfiguration,” she said. “I feel like I got my sexy back.”
Marie said the tattoos often change women’s lives, and she is glad to be a part of that.
“A tattoo can be so profound, yet most people don’t even know it is there,” she said.
Marie also does restorative and medical tattooing for other conditions, including vitiligo, hair loss, and scar cover-up. In addition to physical healing, Marie has helped soldiers heal emotionally. Through her involvement with the Patriot Guard, Marie has spent time at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Many of the wounded warriors she has met have come to get tattoos.
“Most of those guys are about 20 years old, and are missing limbs,” she said. “I get a lot of strength from them, because they are so positive, and have such an appreciation for being alive.”
Trevor Waddington, president of the Olney Chamber of Commerce, recently got a tattoo at Tantric Tattoo and Boutique.
The two-year-old shop, at 837 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, has a warm, homey feel, unlike what most might expect a tattoo shop to look like.
Waddington, 36, invited The Gazette along as he got his new tattoo, to debunk the attitude that tattoo shops attract undesirables. “There have been grumblings from local residents about the ‘bad element’ that a tattoo shop draws, although I really don’t think that’s the case anymore,” he said. “There are still people who think that tattoos are just for bikers and gangs, and they don’t want those people coming to the Olney-Sandy Spring area.”
Marie, who has been in the business since 1995, recalls a conversation at a Sandy Spring Museum event.
“Some older ladies told me that they didn’t like me here, but when I told them more about tattoos and the things we do, they were a little more understanding,” she said. “Although none of them have come in for tattoos yet.”
Waddington, who also is the admissions director for an area private school, visited Marie on Aug. 12 for what would be his third tattoo, although the first by her. He spent a lot of time deciding on a design that would reflect his English heritage.
He had seen some ideas online, and shared his vision with Marie. She spent about 15 hours working on research and creating the design, which included a lion, a shield, a cross and chain mail.
As she drew a freehand outline on Waddington’s shoulder, he winced in pain.
“If I am thinking about it, it hurts a little, sometimes a lot,” he admitted.
The appointment lasted about three hours, but two more appointments will be needed to complete the design.
Waddington said when he was younger, he never thought he would be a “tattoo person.”
“I’m not rebellious, and I realize they are permanent, but I have never regretted mine for one second,” he said. “This tattoo is something that I have wanted for a long time and am anxious to see it come together.”
Sometimes people will come in wanting to memorialize a lost child, or some other important event of their life. People ask for all kinds of tattoos for all kinds of reasons, and Marie works with them to translate their memories into artwork.
“There have been plenty of times when I have sat and cried with people,” she said.
She has heard comments about opening her shop just a few blocks away from Sherwood High School.
“A lot of people think we are targeting children, but we are not,” she said. “I don’t encourage children to get tattoos. And if I think a young person is making a mistake, I just say no.”
She recalled an incident when a 16-year-old wanted a tattoo on his neck, but she tried to discourage him regarding the placement, reminding him that having a visible tattoo could be an issue when he was older. His mother became angry and screamed at her when she refused to do it.
“I’m pretty strong in my convictions, and feel that it is my responsibility to help people make a good choice,” she said.
Most of her clientele ranges from 30 to 55, although two weeks ago, she tattooed a man who was 81 years old.
While the strangest tattoo Marie has done is not appropriate for print, the strangest G-rated tattoo she ever did was two eggs over easy with two slices of bacon on an ankle.
Marie did not get her first tattoo until she was 25, because she recalls being concerned what others might think of her as a mother taking her child to preschool.
“I didn’t want my decisions affecting my child,” she said.
“There is a lot less judgment these days, but everyone has a right to their own opinion,” she said. “Even people who aren’t sure about getting a tattoo end up getting another; they are a lot like potato chips.”