Restoration Through Ink, 2021

Identity, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” As a society, now more than ever, the meaning of one’s identity has never been more fluid or more open to interpretation. What defines someone’s identity? The answer is different for everyone. But for those asking that question, tattoo artist Jamie Wedge at the Lovely Monkey Tattoo in Whitmore Lake is hoping to provide a solution.

Wedge specializes in areola and nipple restoration tattoos. Her clients include women, men, and transgender people who have had “breast reconstruction, mastectomies, and other breast surgeries.”

 A tattoo artist since 2006, Wedge’s portfolio consisted mainly of illustrative and floral pieces up until 2016. Coincidentally, that was the year that shop owner Dana Forrester opened the Lovely Monkey Tattoo, in Whitmore Lake, a sister-store to Ann Arbor’s Lucky Monkey Tattoo. 2016 would end up changing the course of Wedge’s career. It all began with a client who came to Wedge asking to cover cancer scars.

“During her cancer battle, she had breast reduction surgery,” Wedge explained. “She had a lot of breast tissue left over, which was great. But they took her areola away.” The areola is defined as the “small circular area, in particular the ring of pigmented skin surrounding a nipple.”

“She asked me to cover [the cancer scars] up with imagery. This process took about six months. Over that time, I got to know more about her, and about her sister, who was going through the same thing, but she had a completely different situation.” That client ended up requesting a realistic areola tattoo, to replace her nipple loss.

After working with that client and learning more about her story, Wedge realized the impact her areola tattoos could have. Restoring that part of a woman’s body through art became an empowering moment for the both of them.

“Working with her,” said Wedge, “I realized that I needed to do something more.” Enter Dana Forrester.

Forrester just so happened to be searching for an artist who could tackle the challenges that come with realistic areola tattoos. Up until that experience with her client, Wedge had not considered areola tattoos as a great need, but here was Forrester, searching for an artist to regularly produce such a tattoo.

The space Lovely Monkey occupies was once a five-and-dime. Then an ice cream shop. But now, in its current incarnation, the little red and white Victorian-style building that houses the tattoo shop adds a punch of femininity to Whitmore Lake’s downtown scene. The Lovely Monkey is similar to its sister store, in that the shop is known for producing some of the most vibrant, creative, professional tattoo experiences in the area. But, Lovely Monkey sets itself apart by being women-run and women-focused. Once open, Forrester began seeking an artist who could mesh femininity with this unique method of tattooing to bring a slice of female empowerment not just to Whitmore Lake, but Michigan in general, in a way that had never been seen before in the tattoo world.

After 15 years in the tattoo business, Forrester saw a need for artists who could tattoo realistic-looking nipples. Forrester, who co-owns her tattoo shops with husband James Trunko, lost her sister-in-law Mary Clare Greenblatt, to breast cancer. After that, her mission to fill the void for a good nipple tattoo artist became a personal one. Now, she views this style of tattoo as one that not only brings peace and light to a stranger’s life, but one that continues to honor Mary.

Areola tattoos require a knowledge of 3D realism. Pair that with the fact that the tattoo area is a sensitive one, both physically and emotionally, so the tattoo becomes a challenging piece, for even some of the most seasoned tattoo artists.

“Not everyone can do this job,” said Wedge. “I’m one of the only ones who really specializes in this kind of tattooing in Michigan.” Since clients often come to Wedge after surviving cancer, or transgender top surgeries (just to name a couple of scenarios), Wedge often has scar tissue to work with and pigmentation to balance. Perhaps a client has one areola but not another—Wedge is tasked with matching existing shapes and colors. Sometimes, because of the circumstances often surrounding this kind of tattoo, it may be the first time a client’s ever been inked.

Above image from Jamie Wedge.

 “Jamie really transforms people,” said Forrester. “Especially cancer patients. They have been through so much. And that was why I couldn’t open another skull and dagger kind of shop—because they don’t have the sensitivity clients like that need. Lovely Monkey can be that calm space for clients who need it. This shop has a softer side than your traditional tattoo shop, for that reason. And to have Jamie here, performing her magic, we’re just changing lives, one client at a time.”

Wedge worked with a mentor in Austin, Texas, to hone her skill in areola tattooing. Areola tattooing, Wedge said, has not only changed her life, but she feels fortunate to be in a position where she can change lives through her art.

 “In tattooing in general, you’re changing someone’s body forever. But, areola tattoos feel even more impactful. As a woman, I feel like if I woke up one day without a breast or without a nipple, I would feel like my womanhood got taken away from me. Like my femininity was stripped. With this work, I get to give identity back to people, even in small portions. Reconstruction doesn’t always get it right. This tattoo is like tying up the loose ends, right? You can look in the mirror and feel confident again. That’s what I’m able to give to people.”

An areola tattoo is typically two sessions. Wedge said that working with existing scar tissue and incorporating realism takes time, and you don’t want the end effect “looking like a bulls-eye.”  

“At the beginning, we asked for volunteers to come in and have a 3D nipple tattooed on them, anywhere on their body, just so we could nail the look and feel,” said Forrester. “Then we would cover the tattoo with any tattoo of their choosing. We actually got quite a few men to come out, and some of them just kept the extra nipple, no cover-up.”

A few years ago, Wedge and Forrester began a yearly event called “Win a Pair.’’ This created the opportunity for potential clients who have suffered the loss of an areola to enter for a chance to win a pair of free nipple tattoos.

“We award around three a year. Usually, the entries start around Christmastime. It’s an opportunity for people who don’t have the money, or who don’t have the insurance to cover their loss, to feel whole again. That’s where we are able to really come in, not only during this contest, but just with nipple tattooing in general, and really change people’s lives,” said Forrester.  

 “[Areola tattoos] are saving marriages, saving relationships, and saving someone’s self-worth. It’s letting them look in the mirror versus “look what happened. Look what I’m dealing with every day.” It allows them to continue on with their day and kind of move on from the recovery process,” said Wedge. “This is really the last thing that clients are doing to kind of get past whatever situation they are in, whether it be cancer, whether it be transitioning genders, whether it be a man or a woman coming in for an areola tattoo.”