Meet the incredible Alison Habbal, a cancer survivor who has gone viral for showing her resplendent post-lumpectomy tattoo across social media. In an exclusive interview to Inked she shares her story including fighting through the pain of having the sensitive parts of her body tattooed "it had nothing on the chemotherapy," she says.
Do you have other tattoos?
This is my first and only tattoo, however I will continue this design down my ribs around my daughter Bessie's name next time the artist comes back to Australia
What made you decide to get tattooed in the first place?
The cancer was actually attached to my right nipple, so when they performed the lumpectomy they had to remove the nipple. A nipple reconstruction actually involves cosmetic tattooing of the area to give it pigment, so I figured if I was going to get a tattoo it would epic, not a pink circle! It is unlikely they would have been able to match my left nipple very well anyway, so I decided to just have some fun with it instead.
What made you decide to go with the particular design?
I really love geometric black and white tattoos (Coen Mitchell was the other artist that made caught my eye) but I felt the breast area needed to be an organic design that would easily shape around the breast and expand and contract with fluctuations in size—nothing worse than wonky geometry. I also thought that a full color design would disguise the scar and the variation in skin tone better than a black and white design. I also felt I needed something appropriate for my age that had a timeless appeal.
The bows are a symbol of loyalty—the ties that bind us to those we love. Stars cannot shine without darkness and represent inner strength. Both stars and bows are popular motifs used in jewelery, the industry I work in and I love. Dark pink roses are symbolic of gratitude and appreciation (of the gift of life) and orange tulips represent positive energy.
During a touching conversation with my 7 year old daughter, Bessie, before the surgery I made a deal with her that I wouldn't get Elsa tattooed on my breast, which was her first suggestion, but I would include her name instead—and it's one of my favorite parts of the tattoo.
Since the tattoo extends to your shoulder it can be visible in many dresses and tank tops was that conscious decision?
The placement was very important—I wanted the tattoo to reveal itself from under the neckline of lingerie and clothing, and for the elements visible on the shoulder to suggest what was further down the chest. I didn't see the point in getting a beautiful tattoo only to hide it from everyone under my clothes (says the girl that posts her whole naked breast on Instagram!).
We hear from many women who get post-mastectomy and lumpectomy tattoos that they tend toward feminine designs as many feel that by losing their breasts they feel like they have lost a bit of femininity. Does that ring true to you?
I was very fortunate that my surgeon did a wonderful job and produced a very clean scar and beautifully shaped breast after the surgery, so I didn’t feel as though I had "lost my femininity" from the surgery. I can understand how hard it would be for those who have to have a double mastectomy though—totally different story to my situation.
What made you decide to go with Makkala Rose?
I didn’t want to design the tattoo, but working as a designer myself I had a strong vision of what I wanted. I needed to find an artist that had a distinctive style that I loved so I could be confident in the end result. I loved Makkala’s graphic style and use of color and once I found her I knew she was the one. I wanted a tattoo that was distinctively one of hers, which is why we included the flowers.
When you met with Makkala, was there an instant deep connection and if so was that important to process?
I didn’t meet Makkala in person until we started the tattoo, but her portfolio speaks for itself so I had complete trust. We designed the tattoo via email and messenger and she responded very well to my feedback, because I was very particular about what I wanted.
What was the most painful part of the tattoo?
Tattooing over the actual scar was by far the most painful, and all those little stretch marks weren’t far behind. Add in the ribs and the collarbone and you have 13 hours of *excitement*—but it had nothing on the chemotherapy, so I was fine to continue as long as Makkala could.
Do you think that this tattoo will lead to more ink on your body?
I plan on extending this tattoo down the ribs further, which was always part of the original plan but I don’t think I will get any more tattoos at this stage. I’ve always loved tattoos but could never commit to a design, then I started feeling like I was too old. Then after the surgery I thought of the tattoo like part of the treatment plan so I researched and pursued it relentlessly! Now the tattoo helps me feel young and irresponsible!
What does your daughter think of the piece?
She loves the flowers and bows and of course her name, what little girl wouldn't? I get nervous when she starts adding tattoos to her dolls though… Too young for tattoos!
What has the reception been through social media?
The reaction has been surprising—amongst so many similar photos online this one seems to get more likes, even on all the tattoo Instagrams filled with the beautiful models. I think that might be the smile—you can see the emotion, my happiness to have this tattoo and be finished my treatment.
There are a few confused men that can't find the nipple that make me laugh but the posts I enjoy most come from the older conservative ladies that start their comment with "I don't usually like tattoos, but..." I've received messages of support and solidarity from all over the world, many thanking me for inspiring them which is touching.
What would you saw to a woman who is facing a mastectomy or lumpectomy?
Focus on getting better, visualize a healthy future and love that body that gives you life.
How often do people in real life ask you to whip out your boob now?
Luckily they can see enough of the tattoo on the shoulder that it usually satisfies their curiosity. People ask how far it goes down but I haven’t had many ask to see the whole tattoo—even though I know they want to ask! It still takes a special kind of confidence to ask a woman to get her breast out in public....
MORE PHOTOS OF ALISON AND THE PROCESS BELOW