CHICAGO — David Allen describes his work in the most basic terms: “I’m a tattoo artist,” he says. “I tattoo.”
It’s an intentional understatement – Allen is a highly sought-after tattoo artist specializing in mastectomy tattoos – and a statement about how well he does his job. Which has a lot to do with empathy, or the art of making yourself small, so he can see the bigger picture.
In “Grace,” a new documentary from Chicago filmmaker Rachel Pikelny, Allen’s work is showcased as the film follows the post-treatment journey of a suburban mother and breast cancer survivor.
“It’s like a resurrection,” she tells Allen in the film as he tattoos her mastectomy scars. “What you’re doing right now has the potential to reshape the way I see my whole body.”
It’s a moving moment in a moving portrayal of a woman’s struggle to accept her body and her femininity after cancer.
“It’s an intimate profession,” Allen said a moment later, “and if you let it and let your guard down, it can change you too. And I think that’s an honor.”
Allen, who was featured in a Tribune article in the fall of 2016, has absorbed a lot of change following his work with mastectomy patients.
He has spent much of the past 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 lifelong healing.
“They called what I do the intersection of art and medicine,” he says. “It really touched me. And it opened people’s eyes.” Increased exposure to the medical field through the journal “added an extra element of respect,” he says, “and opened many doors.”
He now regularly speaks at breast cancer conferences in the United States and abroad: “It’s like doctors, plastic surgeons and experts, and then this tattoo artist,” he says, but notes that he has unique insights to offer: “I realized that I spend four for five hours with a woman, and the doctors spend 15 minutes at a time, so I’m kind of aware of different things.”
Recently, he spoke with doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital about how his work could be offered to breast cancer patients, and he worked with two Minnesota plastic surgeons on ideas for how reconstruction breast could be planned in advance with scars placed to allow easier concealment by tattoos.
Her work has also gained artistic notoriety – it will be part of an upcoming beauty project by graphic design icon Stefan Sagmeister; and her work has been featured in a selection of tattoos as part of the “Is Fashion Modern?” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“I went to see it, and it blew my mind,” he says. “” Oh my God, I have work at MOMA. “”He is also working on an exhibition of his work to be shown at the Gold Coast International Museum of Surgical Sciences.
And, of course, he continued to help women who come to him to turn their scars into art. So many women have used his services that he plans to expand his reach by training other artists to perform mastectomy work.
“I have a queue of hundreds of women, and I can’t meet that queue, so I’m a bottleneck in a way. Why not educate people if it’s not happening really as I want?”
To enable this teaching, he embarked on his most ambitious project to date: a new space in Ravenswood, a loft-style studio for tattooing and education.
“I want to have people from all over the world to learn from,” he says.
The new technology will allow him to get advanced 3D imaging from his clients, so he can better tailor tattoos to scarred bodies, and a personalized atmosphere will help create a calming space. After months of obsessing over the details, from a soothing art collection to a specially equipped bathroom for his mastectomy clients, he will open the new space in May.
“While it was all a bit daunting,” he says, “the community really jumped behind me, especially here in Chicago.”
Allen, inspired by the spirit of the women he helps, sees no end in sight. “I don’t know what the next step is,” he says, “but doors are opening everywhere.”