Tanya Buxton is the founder and owner of Paradise Tattoo Studio in Cheltenham. Dusky pink with a tropical vibe, Paradise offers tattoo experiences like no other, from 3D areola tattoos for mastectomy and top surgery patients to scar cover-up tattoos, as well as aesthetic tattooing such as eyebrows and freckles and permanent lipstick. With its brightly-coloured doorway and plant-filled interior, Paradise is about as far as you can get from the aggressively metal, sometimes intimidating aesthetic of many of the UK’s tattoo parlours.
One of Buxton’s clients is Brandon (who asked us to change his name for privacy), a transgender man who underwent life-changing top surgery four years ago. Around the time of his surgery there was also an intense heatwave, which coincided with the period in which he was healing from his surgical wounds. Brandon’s surgeon believes that because the graft sites were constantly moist from his body producing sweat to cool down, they didn’t heal as predicted. This unfortunately led to the loss of his nipple and some of the natural areola pigmentation.
“Overall I was pleased with top surgery as it literally changed my life,” says Brandon. “However I still was a little self-conscious that, close up, people would question my nipples. While I’m in the army it’s important that I can be as comfortable as possible around the other lads and not be pointed out as different where I’d then have to explain that I’m transgender.”
“I found about the work that Tanya is doing via a closed Facebook group run by a charity for transgender people. On the group, people share lots of things such as trans-friendly barbers and GPs, to sharing albums of their top surgery results so people can have access to this kind of information which isn’t easily available online.
“Someone in the group named two ‘medical tattooists’ and Tanya was one of them. I hadn’t seen any results at this point – I just gave her a follow on Instagram and enquired. Because she got mentioned in the group, I thought she must have tattooed a trans guy, so I wasn’t scared to ask.”
Buxton, 36, thinks it’s vital for trans people to be able to seek gender-affirming treatments, and considers her tattoos one of them. She appears on video call with a full face of gorgeously applied make-up and launches into a bubbly description of the techniques she uses to apply the hyperreal 3D areola and nipple tattoos she does for clients who might have lost their areolas or nipples during the surgical process. Here’s how our conversation went down.
VICE: What led you to start offering areola and nipple tattoos?
Tanya Buxton: I’ve been a tattoo artist for about 14 years now. I started as a typical traditional tattoo artist, but also started doing cosmetic tattooing, also called “permanent makeup” – that’s eyebrows, eyeliner, lips, things like that.
Sometimes, people who lost their eyebrows due to chemotherapy, or if they were suffering from alopecia for instance, would come in to get their eyebrows inked on. And others would come in for tattoos to cover-up a scarred area of their body. I very much enjoyed doing that kind of work with scars and cover-ups as all the different kinds of things that tattooing could offer has always been something that’s really inspired me. It’s not always just about getting a piece of art; it can mean so much more.
I was starting to get clients who were mastectomy patients and wanted scar cover-up tattoos. And that’s when I learned that the NHS offered semi-permanent areola tattooing. I was quite curious about this and thought that it would probably be possible to recreate the areola and nipple in permanent tattoo ink, based off pictures that the client had taken of themselves pre-surgery.
Talk us through the process of designing areola and nipple tattoos.
The process can vary from person to person, depending on what their circumstances are; whether we're creating two completely new nipples, either from top surgery or a double mastectomy. If that’s the case, I’ll draw something completely from scratch. Before those kinds of surgeries, I ask clients to take pictures of their chest area, so I can then use those images and try and recreate what was there before. And obviously, if I’m just doing the one, I’m matching the natural side to the side that has been reconstructed.
When I very first started doing it, I messaged a ton of my friends and asked them all to send me pictures of their nipples so that I could practice my hyperreal techniques. And lots of them did, which is great. Knowing your colour theory is really important because I apply it to each of my clients. I’ll look at their natural skin tone, their undertones, and their hair colour so that I use ink colours that suit them and looks as natural as possible. Like it belongs there, y’know. Because that’s the whole point really; I’m trying to create something that you wouldn’t know was a tattoo.
I use the same equipment and inks that I would doing traditional tattoo work. But I have to be aware that tattooing on scar tissue takes a different level of skill to make sure that they heal nicely, and keep the pigments for as long as possible.
How many shades of ink do you typically use for each areola/nipple tattoo?
It could be anywhere from eight to 12 different pots of ink. It all depends on the person and their skin tone. It depends on the type of nipple as well. You know, some of us have really textured lumps and bumps that make up our nipple area and, in those cases, there are more colours involved.
Why is it vitally important that trans folk access gender-affirming treatments?
Everybody deserves to feel comfortable in their own skin. Everyone deserves to feel beautiful. Everyone deserves to feel confident.
Scarring can feel like a closed door for a lot of people, whether that’s from breast cancer or from transitioning, and you don’t want to be reminded of the trauma of it all the time. So, I think knowing what’s available for those final stages is the little cherry on top. I want more people to know what’s available and what can be done.