ELBURN – Leah Bobbitt was 37 with a 16-month-old baby when she was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast.
She opted for a double mastectomy because she tested positive for a mutation on the BRCA2 gene, which increases the risk of breast cancer.
“I had both breasts removed – if they are going to kill me, take them – and a complete hysterectomy,” Bobbitt, now 51, said. “My chances of getting cancer are there because of the BRCA2 factor. But I’m doing what I can not to.”
Bobbitt was living in Georgia at the time, having moved there after selling her Batavia beauty salon.
She delayed having her nipples tattooed because she had gotten sick and spiked a fever.
Twelve years later, she moved back to Illinois and is now living in Cortland and still had not had them done.
“Life happened,” Bobbitt said.
But one day, she went to Five-O Tattoo in Elburn with a girlfriend to get a tattoo.
“I inquired if [the owner] knew anybody who was doing tattoos for nipples and aureolas,” Bobbitt said. “And he said, ‘Funny you should say that.’”
'Make me feel normal'
Steve Winterstein, who opened Five-O Tattoo, 109 E. North St. in 2012, is a retired police commander. The Campton Township resident named his tattoo business to reflect his affinity for law enforcement.
Winterstein’s mother and mother-in-law both had breast cancer; his mother died from it.
“We learned about 3D nipples through my wife’s mother and my mother. That it was an option, but difficult to find someone who could do them,” Winterstein, 49, said. “So we started to offer that last year.”
Breast reconstruction surgery sometimes includes scar tissue to simulate a nipple and aureola, but they are not realistic in color and have no detail, Winterstein said.
“Most of the time, there’s nothing there other than the scars from surgery,” Winterstein said. “Women want to identify with the breasts they had before ... Many of them feel incomplete. They say, ‘Make me feel normal.’”
Most women do not have pre-surgery photos of their nipples, so Winterstein talks with them for a while first to learn the color, shape and size they used to have.
“These are all the things I need to know for designing any other kind of art so I can recreate what they originally had,” Winterstein said. “I use different sizing tools so they can fit what size it was and different color pigments that are appropriate for them.”
While many tattoo artists charge hundreds of dollars for 3D nipple tattooing, Winterstein said he charges $25 per breast, to cover the cost of the ink.
His expertise and artistry are free.
“I have had a career in service to others and this is to give back to my mother and other mothers who have suffered from breast cancer,” Winterstein said. “It’s more important to us that we’re able to help these women feel better about themselves, especially those who have had a mastectomy due to this terrible disease.”
Two-step tattoo process
The tattooing happens in two stages. The first is to put down the main colors and size.
Then after a month and it has healed, Winterstein puts in highlights and shading to simulate natural nipple and aureola coloring so the tattoos have the desired 3D effect.
“The skin grows over the tattoo as it heals and the color shows through the skin. The skin tone is the filter,” Winterstein said.
“I usually use a Q-tip and put ink on it,” Winterstein said. “And I see how I can match it to her tone. It’s unlike when I pick colors for a tattoo that I think will look good.”
He uses a set of 10 colors called Fusion Ink Flesh Tones to mix and blend for any skin color.
'If I can help another woman'
On May 9, a month after the initial tattooing, Bobbitt came in for her highlights and shading.
Bobbitt was not shy at all, taking off her sweater and bra in front of Winterstein, his wife Stacey, a reporter, a photographer and her 14-year-old daughter, Emma Lynn Hansing.
Winterstein put on latex gloves and wiped down Bobbitt’s breasts with a sanitizer as she positioned herself on a reclining chair.
“I tell everyone you do a great job,” Bobbitt said to Winterstein. “If he sees me on the street, he can say, ‘I did her nipples.’”
Winterstein starts applying the highlighting colors and Bobbitt says she does not feel anything but a “ping” once in a while.
“They’re not mine any more,” Bobbitt said of her silicone implanted breasts. “They are medical.”
The highlighting and shading does not take long.
Winterstein wipes off the dribbled ink and Bobbitt gets up to look at herself in the mirror.
She turns around and shows everyone in the room how realistic and normal her new nipples and aureolas look.
Her daughter, who is finishing up eighth grade in DeKalb, looks up from her phone and nods her approval.
The new tattooed area gets bandaged before Bobbitt puts her bra back on.
When asked how she feels about her mom being so open, Emma Lynn shrugged. Without looking up from her phone, she said, “I’m used to it.”
As to her openness about getting these tattoos, Bobbitt said her goal was to bring attention to the service in order to help other women in similar circumstances.
“You lose your hair. You lose your dignity and you lose your breasts. Cancer takes it all away,” Bobbitt said. “If I can help another woman feel better and more confident about what happened to her – I will do whatever I can.”
More information about Five-O Tattoo is available by visiting www.fiveotattoo.com or calling 630-365-3900.