Mica Gadhia did not want nipples again. Following her year-long breast cancer journey, which consisted of constant poking and prodding and the eventual traumatic loss of her sexual organs, the expectations of what came next post-treatment pissed her off.
“I was angry for most of the [breast cancer] process,” Gadhia said. ”Because you don’t want to have fucking cancer.”
That anger only grew after a particularly frustrating conversation with a male friend. “Nipples are what people expect; of course you would get them,” he asserted.
According to Gadhia, however, doing what’s expected isn’t how she moves through the world.
She eventually found a solution that was far from what could be considered the typical expectation: a tattoo artist in a sunken studio off Central Avenue who offered Gahdia “the nipple of her dreams” in the form of an artistic breast adornment tattoo.
Hayley Moran, owner of Haylo Healing Arts Lounge, has practiced custom breast adornment, areola renewal and 3D nipple tattoos for nearly 13 years. In 2010, when Moran was working as a tattoo artist at Fu’s Custom Tattoos in NoDa, the practice was nearly unheard of. She became aware of it while she was dabbling in another cosmetic procedure: eyebrow tattooing.
Moran did a few of the restorative tattoos over two years, but didn’t pick it up as a regular service until she connected with Dr. Garrett Harper, MD, in 2012. A double board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Harper was referred to Moran by a movie theater attendant during a date night with his wife.
He had been searching for a realistic tattoo artist to refer his breast cancer patients to after relocating from Atlanta to Charlotte (and getting a sleeve of his own while he was at it). He asked the attendant, then another woman on a separate occasion, “Who would do the best job forming an intimate relationship with breast cancer survivors who needed their nipples tattooed?”
“Immediately, without hesitation, [the two women] said Hayley,” Harper recalled to Queen City Nerve.
Areola and nipple tattooing were still a new frontier at the time; surgeons relied on breast and nipple reconstruction to achieve the look and feel of a typical areola. That practice left an inordinate amount of scar tissue behind, Harper said, and the recreated nipple would always flatten out over time.
When surgeons or their nurses did attempt to recreate an areola complex through tattooing, they would take the advice they learned from a quick weekend workshop on tattooing and pigment.
But nurses aren’t trained tattoo artists who dedicate their lives to the craft. Any certification they could earn in a workshop is not in honor of their ability to create a realistic nipple and areola, only the level of safety and sterilization they achieved during the tattoo process.
“It was pathetic,” Harper said. “[The nipples] had no pop, no texture. It was not just disappointing, it was borderline criminal.”
“It just seemed like such a waste of time and resources that the patient was constantly trying to improve,” Harper continued. “Whereas you get somebody who’s just a really talented tattoo artist and it’s one and done and beautiful.”
Moran was more than happy to be that tattoo artist. She believes creating tattoos that symbolize the final piece of a breast cancer survivor’s journey is a step toward feeling at home in your skin, something foundational to living fully.
Opening her own woman-owned and operated tattoo studio in January 2015 helped create an environment where Moran could dedicate necessary care and attention to her clientele. Gadhia felt that comfort on the day of her appointment.
“I think the number one thing that [Hayley] offers is safety, which is something you don’t feel during your medical process,” Gadhia said. “To be able to go into somebody’s space and to be held and to feel safe … there’s not a price you can put on that.”
The nipple of Gadhia’s dreams didn’t turn out to be a nipple at all. Her tattoos symbolized what she wanted in her life: an om symbol representing calm on her left breast and an opening lotus on her right, which she features proudly on the cover of her memoir, Open in the Front.
Tattoos make breast cancer survivors feel whole again
Moran reached out to her past clients asking if any of them were comfortable talking to Queen City Nerve about their tattoo experience for this story. Within 24 hours, nine of them reached out happy to share.
“You have a lot of choice taken away from you when you have cancer, and anything you can choose is a small victory,” said Beth Auten, a past client. “It’s empowering to be able to choose to have your body look the way you envision it and feel confident and beautiful in your own skin.”
Auten had already gone through a nipple reconstruction surgery, requiring Moran to tattoo grafted skin, which changes the way the skin picks up the pigment.
“She didn’t tell me she couldn’t do it — she just figured it out, and with a touch-up a few months later, they look like ‘real’ nipples,” Auten said.
Moran waves the consultation fee for breast adornment and areola renewal consultations, prioritizing the tattoos above her other appointments.
Following Cassandra Casanova’s consultation with Moran, the next open appointment shouldn’t have been until three months later. Moran moved her schedule around, knowing what this procedure meant for her client, and booked Casanova not even two weeks later.
“She knew I had already waited two and a half years for this portion to be complete,” Casanova said. “She didn’t want me to have to wait another second if she could help it.
“It was the final step that I needed to just make me feel whole as a woman,” she added. “When she… showed me the mirror I immediately started crying. Because … I could just say, ‘Finally, finally it’s done.’”
“I think [the tattoos] really help close the last chapter of a pretty awful time that you had to live through,” Misty Jannetta, a past client, told Queen City Nerve. “It is the beginning of getting back your life to a close-to-normal view of yourself.”
Moran created an original tattoo for Lisa Jones based on the idea she described in her consultation.
“I sought Haylo Studios to specifically create something to memorialize … as a marker of the end of the main part of my cancer journey,” she said. “I see it every day and it reminds me of the challenge I faced and all the love and support I was given.
“It is by far the most beautiful reminder of my time in primary cancer treatment,” she continued. “I will always be a cancer survivor and in some ways that is a beautiful thing.”
Despite the necessity, it’s hard to find tattoo artists offering these services
Three-dimensional nipple and areola renewal tattoos are a life-changing service, but the service is still hard to find. So why aren’t more local tattoo artists offering it?
“With tattooing in general, I feel like there aren’t tons of people willing to share their particular skill sets,” said Sam Woodson, Moran’s apprentice. “So [Hayley] is one in a million for sure.”
Although Moran admitted there is no one in Charlotte that she feels she could send clients to if she were unable to complete their tattoos, she believes Woodson’s proficiency with areola tattoos is going to change that.
Woodson began apprenticing under Moran in spring 2023 after hearing about her work and is currently observing Moran’s nipple, breast and areola tattoos before she gets started on her own. She told Queen City Nerve that working with scar tissue and understanding the way the skin will react under different circumstances is a lot to learn, but it’s an interesting challenge.
“I think [the areola tattoos] are super important because it’s such a necessity for so many people,” Woodson said. “And if you’re in body arts already, the purpose for most people … is to help other people find confidence in themselves.”
To Moran, tattooing is a sacred ritual that should be honored and protected through high-quality care. She said this specialty service requires the right knowledge and requires an artist with good bedside manner.
“The heart of this art, for [breast cancer] survivors as well as the growing trans community, is centered in a real desire to renew confidence and inspire a sense of wholeness,” Moran said. “It’s important to me that we enrich our tattoo community with love, comfort and compassion through proper mentorship.”
Nipple tattoos mark new beginnings for trans community
While 3D areola tattooing marks the end of a chapter for one community, it can also mark the beginning of a brand new one for another.
Tattooing members of the transgender community led Moran to an epiphany. The same nipple and areola tattoos she offers to breast cancer survivors could also be used to create a more realistic look for female-to-male (FTM) trans folks who have undergone top surgery.
Although many trans folks typically walk away from surgery with both nipples intact, they can, at times, become misshapen from top surgery.
“I’ve seen a few folks post-top surgery and know from my years of working with the scarring from mastectomy, there is only so much a surgeon can do to restore visual balance and harmony to a body who has experienced so much change,” she said.
Moran offers 3D areola tattoos to those who choose not to go through with nipple reconstruction. As in breast cancer recovery, Moran recognized that bedside manner means everything while carrying out this work.
Recognizing that members of the trans community may not feel accepted as soon as they walk into a new space, she emphasized that those folks are not only accepted at Haylo Healing Arts Lounge, but loved.
“Art continues to bring inspiration and beauty into this world and body art, especially by someone who truly cares, can be the perfect step in self-discovery and self-actualization through self-expression,” Moran said.
“We are here to be a part of your journey in ways that bring you into alignment with your own body, mind and spirit. Whether it’s through realistic 3D nipples of your choice or decorative adornment, honoring and embodying your truth by getting tattooed is a meaningful and transformative personal rite of passage.”
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