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Medical tattoo artist helps breast cancer survivors feel whole after surgeries, reconstruction

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BATON ROUGE - A registered nurse saw a need and changed career paths to fill that void — Christin Dottolo studied to become a paramedical tattoo artist and now specializes in 3D nipple tattoos for breast cancer patients after their life-changing surgeries.

Dottolo has helped hundreds of women feel whole again after fights against breast cancer. Breast reconstructions are often the final step for survivors, and people travel from all over to see Dottolo for the very last piece of their journey.

There's a funky vibe inside Medical Ink off Siegen Lane in Baton Rouge. Inspirational quotes cover the walls amongst splashes of color like gold, black and hot pink. Dottolo says she's inspired by her work, spending a lot of time with breast cancer survivors.

"I just love seeing their face when they see it," Dottolo said.

Her clients have been through a lot, and they come to see her for one thing: Dottolo tattoos them, carrying on an art form she saw a need for while working with cancer patients at Woman's Hospital.

"I was so used to being on the scary side of cancer—the surgery, the mastectomy—and it just sounded so great to be on the good side, the part where they're all done. It's the last thing you do," said Dottolo.

She loved being a nurse but now works in a different type of patient care.

"I feel like I definitely found my place. This is what I was meant to do," she said.

Dottolo trained at a tattoo shop in Tampa, Florida, practicing for hours to learn color gradients and shading. After she put her kids to bed, she'd sit at her desk tattooing nipples on pig ears because the texture is similar to human skin.

The alternative to nipple tattoos didn't look like a real nipple to her, and that's why she opened Medical Ink in 2016 and has been going strong ever since. Hundreds of women have come to see her from as far away as Georgia.

"When you get this 3D areola tattoo, it just makes them feel more whole, like they didn't lose anything," Dottolo said.

One of Dottolo's clients is cancer survivor Kimberly Hawkins. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 and found out about Medical Ink through her plastic surgeon for the last part of her reconstruction.

"I think I was so, just, excited," Hawkins said. "They do such a good job, like, it looks real!"

Hawkins only has one tattoo, but it's an important one to her.

"To some people, that nipple that they're tattooing on you, it's almost like it's going to complete them. It's a completion to your journey almost. That's how I look at it," Hawkins said.

Another nurse who worked with Dottolo at Woman's Hospital, Lauren Simpson, hopped on board. Simpson says training her hand was crucial. She uses a wireless needle to do her work — a needle that can be swapped out for something smaller or larger, slowed or sped up, depending on the effect she's looking for.

"The least painful tattoo you've ever had," she said.

Simpson did Hawkins' 3D areola tattoo and says one of the best things about her job is connecting with the patient.

"You meet someone who's faced cancer, faced something as hard as cancer, stared it down and came out on the other side," Simpson said.

Instead of taking something from these women, they're giving something back. It's why Medical Ink exists — to help women accomplish this final stage in their breast cancer journey.

"They look in the mirror, and they're just so proud, and they feel like they look good, and I just love that," Dottolo said. "It marks the end of an era, you know, and the beginning of the rest of your life."

The 3D areola nipple is covered by insurance and is offered to the patient at no cost.

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