Stacie Becker is not your typical tattoo artist. The 38-year-old sophomore studio art major, who balances classes with her full-time job in a tattoo parlor, specializes in nipples.
“I never thought my decisions would lead to this,” Becker says of her unlikely path. “The reward … I can’t really put it into words.”
Becker’s enthusiasm is not all her own. It’s a reflection from her clients at Empower Tattoos in Altamonte Springs, where breast cancer survivors look in a mirror after maybe two hours under Becker’s magical talent and see what they thought had been lost forever: completeness.
From the most basic business standpoint, Becker is filling a need that previously had few real answers. Reconstructive surgeons can build breasts back up for women who have undergone mastectomies. They can even attempt an additional procedure to construct areolas, which means more cutting, folding and stitching. But that final step does not usually restore a realistic appearance long-term. It’s like a flower stem without the petals, leaving patients with constant reminders of what has been lost.
Or those surgeons can send patients to the tattoo parlor, where Becker uses less invasive instruments to create 3D tattoos that restore the shape and pigmentation of areolas. It’s easier and cheaper than surgery and, plainly speaking, she makes nipples look as close as possible to the way they did before surgery.
“When a woman gets her cherries back,” as Becker puts it, “it changes her quality of life immediately. I’ve seen how much it means.”
What you hear in Becker’s message isn’t sales or marketing. She’s only worked with the medical community since late 2018 and officially launched Empower in the spring of 2019, so even she is still surprised to be discussing how tattoos impact the lives of breast cancer survivors.
“This isn’t at all what I once thought I was supposed to do,” she says. Like a priceless piece of art, her purpose has been woven together across four winding decades.
Finding Her Calling
Of the hundreds of pictures Becker drew as a child, she remembers the fountain. Actually, she remembers her grandmother drawing Becker drawing the fountain. “We had a cool bond,” she says. Art became the core of her memories and of her passion, but it wouldn’t be her major — first at the University of Miami and then for a semester at UCF nearly 20 years ago. The adults knew better, of course: art’s a great hobby, but how will you make a living at it?
So Becker studied business while working at a bank.
“Something was completely missing,” she says.
Becker’s husband, Mike, saw some of the pieces she’d been painting on the side and suggested she apprentice as a tattoo artist. Together, they opened their own shop in 2009. Occasionally, she’d use her expertise to help a client cover up a scar. But the nexus happened in November 2018 when she designed a pink ribbon on the neck of a breast-cancer survivor. The woman’s plastic surgeon, Edgar Sosa, saw the clean lines of the tattoo and contacted Becker to see if she could put the finishing touches on his patients by creating nipples. That’s when she did a little research and found:
- More than 100,000 breast-cancer patients undergo some form of mastectomy every year in the U.S.
- One in eight women will be affected at some point in their lives.
- The U.S. Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 requires most types of health insurance carriers to cover all stages of reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy for breast cancer patients.
The more she studied, the more Becker realized tattoos would be a simple way to finish the difficult journey for breast cancer patients. No more surgery. No more poking and prodding. And no huge medical bill.
“It isn’t about business for me,” Becker says. “It’s about giving women their dignity back.”
Only it hasn’t been quite so simple. There’s still the stigma of tattoos in the medical community. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, insurance companies are more likely to reimburse for costly and painful surgical restoration of areolas rather than preferred alternatives — like tattoos. This despite the fact that many surgeons like Sosa and Charles Newman (another Orlando-area specialist who now refers patients to Empower) admit that the tattoo nipple is more authentic.
Becker has become relentless, reaching out to government officials, insurance coalitions, surgeons and the American Cancer Society. “I’m willing to work with everyone because too many people need this,” she says. “I’m not slowing down.”
Her client stories provide the fuel. Like her first breast-cancer patient after launching Empower. A retired kindergarten teacher who didn’t want more surgery, she just wanted to feel like herself again. Becker consulted with the woman, then went to work on the tattoos. Two hours later, Becker took a picture of the woman looking in the mirror — the way her grandmother once painted a picture of Becker painting a fountain.
“I’ll never forget the look on her face,” says Becker. “At that moment, it dawned on her — and on me — what it meant to have her breasts complete.”
This story originally appeared on UCF Today.