By Glenn Ritt for Cape Cod Health News

What’s a tattoo artist doing working with a plastic surgery practice?

And how is his work such an important part of a breast cancer patient’s recovery — both physically and psychologically?

Hyannis tattoo artist Mark Corliss, who specializes in Japanese designs, isn’t like most others involved in a woman’s breast cancer world. He has perfected the design and execution of a true-to-life breast nipple with tattoo art for women who have lost theirs due to mastectomies.

“Until we met Mark, we were reconstructing nipples ourselves,” said Hyannis plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Loffredo, who works closely with Corliss. “But replicating the areola was very difficult. That is not the expertise of plastic surgeons. The challenge was creating the right pigment and dimension.”

The women who receive Corliss’ body art are incredibly grateful.

“These women have been through hell, and rather than being saddened, I find myself empowered by them,” he said. “When I can tattoo them, they tell me they feel whole again.”

His relationship with Dr. Loffredo and fellow plastic surgeon at Cape & Islands Plastic SurgeryDr. Seth Jones, has helped Corliss see how the three-dimensional, customized nipple tattoos positively affect the outcome of a patient’s surgery.

“Mark plays a big role in the reconstruction process,” said Dr. Loffredo. “It’s the finishing step on a long journey that begins with the mastectomy and builds toward restoring the breast to be as natural as possible.”

Corliss does not charge women for the tattoos, although elsewhere around the country, many tattoo artists are charging between $400 to $600 per breast.

To date, Corliss has tattooed more than 400 women. Add that up he is forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income. His schedule is booked into 2018.

“I have women coming in from all over the country, and it’s very hard for some of them to travel here due to the cost. It’s not right to charge them. I make my living doing Japanese-style tattoos. This is my opportunity to make someone feel whole again. Art does heal.”

Women discover Corliss through their doctors, social media and word of mouth, he said.

“There is a large, powerful group of survivors who constantly help one another and pass on advice and help.”

Breast Reconstruction Starts

A breast cancer patient’s breast reconstruction journey starts after their mastectomy, when a plastic surgeon like Dr. Loffredo or Dr. Jones takes over from the breast surgeon.

“The day before the first surgery, we will see the patient in our office and perform all the necessary markings. We then coordinate with her surgeon to determine exactly where the incision will be made and to develop a plan for skin removal to get the best cosmetic outcome,” explained Dr. Loffredo.

“As soon as the mastectomy is complete, Seth or myself enter the room, consult with the surgeon as to how the operation has gone, and then take over while the patient is still asleep.

“Our initial surgery involves embedding a temporary expander of the skin and muscle, which will slowly fill until it eventually is replaced with a silicone gel implant about three months after the mastectomy.”

Breast reconstruction utilizing an expander has existed for about 40 years, but plastic surgeons today are supported by new bio-engineered products such as AlloDerm that allow them to restore many types of tissue damaged through radiation, injury and disease using the regenerative power of their patients’ own body.

“It’s all really given us a much greater ability to perform better reconstructions,” explained Dr. Loffredo.

Breast reconstruction doesn’t change the fact that women are living with a diagnosis of cancer, he said Dr. Loffredo, but women are “incredibly thankful” to have their breast or breasts back.

“It’s a very emotional thing for them, and frankly, us,” he said.

“Psychologically, a patient wakes up from her mastectomy and has a breast, due to the expander. It may even be larger and more uplifted than when she went to sleep. They look at their new, reconstructed breast right there in the hospital. It alleviates a lot of stress and depression,” he noted.

About three months after this initial surgery, Dr. Jones or Dr. Loffredo will complete the silicone gel implant.

“This allows us to do what is needed to refine the breast to be as normal as possible. It entails skin retailoring, sometimes moving one breast up or down to create the best symmetry with the other and to create as natural a look as we can,” Dr. Loffredo said.

At this point, the reconstruction aspect, in essence, is complete. But, there is one important step remaining — to rebuild the woman’s nipple.

That’s where Corliss comes in.

“Traditionally, plastic surgeons have created a mound of skin and fat that serves as a projecting nipple, then place it where it should be and let it heal. After that, they would tattoo the areola, the ring of pigmented skin surrounding a nipple,” Dr. Loffredo said. “More and more, however, we are forgoing that reconstruction and an artist like Mark is designing a three-dimensional nipple that looks amazingly realistic. It’s pretty impressive.”

First Patient Raved

When Drs. Loffredo and Jones sent their first patient to Corliss’s tattoo parlor, she came back “raving” about what a wonderful experience it was, Dr. Loffredo said.

“Others we sent shared similar experiences. Meanwhile, Mark would send us photos of the breast tattoos and our patients hugging him.”

Eventually, the plastic surgeons invited Corliss to use one of the rooms in their office, and he performed nipple tattooing there for more than two years.

“He became part of the team as well as a very good friend,” Dr. Loffredo said.

Recently, Corliss opened a new location for his Spilt Milk parlor that looks and feels like it could be a physician’s office. Now, patients go directly to him.

Initially, Corliss’ tattoos were two dimensional, but now, he has perfected three-dimensional images that are strikingly realistic, capturing the nuances of skin tone and the idiosyncrasies of age.

Tattooing is a way of taking control, he explained.

“I remember my first client. When her husband came by and shook my hand, he looked so deeply into my eyes and thanked me with such emotion. That’s when I realized I was doing something different, something that was changing peoples’ lives,” he said.

Corliss assumed a tattoo artist would be the last person doctors would recommend for their patients.

“But as tattooing has become more mainstream and accepted, I believe they are seeing me more as an artist whose skills exceed theirs when it comes to this one, often last, step in the reconstructive process.”

Project Paper Crane

Tattoos adorn Corliss’ entire body, something that can startle people who don’t know him.

“People can be intimidated, but I find that this is very much the opposite among the physicians and women I work with,” he explained. “It breaks the ice. It tells a story. It creates a transparency that words alone can’t assure.”

Among Corliss’ favorite designs is a paper crane.

“Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded 1,000 origami cranes, one’s wish would come true. It has also become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times. In Japanese, it’s called ‘senbazuru,’” he said.

It’s why he is naming his new nonprofit Project Paper Crane.

With each tattoo, he has grown more determined than ever that this service should be available to all women who have had breast reconstruction surgery. Project Paper Crane is devoted to helping raise funds to support travel and accommodations for women to come to Hyannis, as well as to train and compensate other tattoo artists around the country so women can find help closer to their homes.

“I would like to train other tattoo artists in other locations and eventually compensate them so women can find help nearer their homes,” he explained.