By Kathryn Eident
Mark Corliss is focused, his tattoo gun buzzing softly as he guides the needle across the skin of a client’s arm. He chats amicably with her as he works, while she lies on a cushioned table, her arm extended. His hand is steady as he expertly inks the outline of butterfly into a growing constellation of drawings that make up her sleeve of tattoos. Adorned with ink himself, including a small star near his eye, Corliss is calm, approachable, and confident.
“I decided I want some done in burgundy and burnt orange,” the client tells him.
“No problem,” he replies. “We’ll get you all set up.”
As the owner of Spilt Milk Tattoo in Hyannis, Corliss has drawn thousands of tattoos over the span of his two-decade career. A self-taught artist, the 39-year-old can draw from his imagination, or from whatever his clients bring in to show him. His shop has been a fixture on Main Street since 2004, and his work has become so popular that customers wait six months for an appointment.
So, when a woman approached him about a special kind of tattoo in 2013, Corliss felt unusually nervous about fulfilling her request.
This client didn’t want just any tattoo. She was a breast cancer survivor, and she had undergone a double mastectomy. She wanted Corliss to draw life-like nipple tattoos to replace the ones she’d lost to her illness.
“I was skeptical at first,” he says. “It’s kind of a heavy thing. I do dragons and stuff like that. But she wasn’t asking for that; she wanted to be put back to normal.”
Together they talked about what she wanted, and he researched different looks and skin colors so he could make tattoos as real as possible.
“At first it was very difficult, because you’re dealing with a person’s expectations of what their body is supposed to look like after they’ve been through a very traumatic experience,” he says. “Emotions are high.”
But when he had finished, the client loved her tattoos, and her husband did, too.
“You could tell that it helped them heal,” he says. “They had been through so much.”
Little did he know, Corliss had tapped into a need much bigger than he had ever anticipated. His work was so realistic, word quickly spread through doctors’ offices, Cape- and Boston-area hospitals, and social media. Corliss’ email inbox began to fill up with requests from breast cancer survivors for nipple tattoos.
“It’s incredible,” he says. “I could do them all day every day if I had the time.”
To-date, Corliss has completed at least 400 sets of nipple tattoos for breast cancer survivors, and all at no cost to the clients. Women now come to his shop from all over the country and the world. Some have never set foot inside a tattoo shop before; others get a set of nipples, then return for other artwork.
“I’ve had clients as old as 75 and as young as 29,” he says. “I’ve got a woman coming in from Germany later this year.”
The process is relatively simple, especially when compared to what the women have been going through, he says. Once he accepts a nipple tattoo request and an appointment is booked, he talks briefly with the client about size and placement. He chooses from about seven colors, then he does the tattoo. The consultation and the drawing take about an hour total.
The result is a remarkably real-looking nipple, with shading and coloration that makes it look three-dimensional.
“For a veteran tattooer, it’s easy,” he says. “That’s where it’s kind of cool to combine the medical and tattoo worlds.”
But creating a lifelike drawing of a nipple on human skin is not without challenges. Often, a client’s skin is stretched, or thick with scarring from previous surgeries. While it means she won’t feel any pain when he draws the tattoo, it means Corliss has to be especially careful to get the drawing and shading right the first time around.
He has developed a close working relationship with doctors from around the region who helped him understand the particular issues and skin types a woman might present when getting a nipple tattoo.
“Drs. Seth Jones and Michael Loffredo at Cape and Islands Plastic Surgery especially helped train me in some of what’s going on with the skin,” he says.
Corliss has also come to expect tears – both happy and sad − as a normal part of the experience for both artist and client.
“One of the coolest things is the look in someone’s eye when they feel like you’ve put them back together,” he says. “It’s also the final chapter for most of them. They’ve been through surgeries, and now this is the last thing.”
He’s worked with incredibly strong women who fight and beat their cancer, but he’s also seen how cancer can ravage a woman, and her family, he says.
“I had one client who had Stage IV breast cancer for 10 years and came in to see me,” he remembers. “She came in with a temperature of 103 from the chemotherapy. But she just had such a great attitude, especially when compared to some of the people I work on who are healthy.”
Corliss feels strongly that the nipple tattoos should be free and refuses to charge his clients. When a client told him she had been quoted $1,800 for a set, he was furious, and took to social media to let women know they deserved the service at no cost.
“I really got bummed out about that,” he says. “You’re talking only an hour’s worth of work.”
If anything, the knowledge only fueled his desire to do more nipple tattoo sets, and he fits in appointments whenever he can.
“I just deleted Facebook so I can find an hour,” he jokes. But he’s serious; he often does the work on his lunch break between traditional tattoo appointments.
No matter how busy his life gets, with his business and his fiancée and one-year-old son, Corliss says he will keep offering nipple tattoos to breast cancer patients as long as he can.
“I won’t stop,” he says. “I won’t stop until they stop asking me.”