Sept. 29 2015 04:17 PM

Shane Wallin opens San Diego's first shop devoted to mastectomy tattoos

Shane Wallin
Photo by John P. Swanson

It's fair to say Shane Wallin is a breast man. In the past, he's also been an everything-else man. Arms. Legs. Faces. Backs. Yeah, he's been a butt guy, too. At 41 years old and with more than 20 years in the tattoo business, there isn't a part of the body he hasn't stuck with a needle full of ink.

According to his wife, he's garnered a bit of a reputation.

"Shane's the guy!," Toni Wallin says. "When we lived in Minneapolis he was the guy other tattoo artists would recommend." She smiles confidently at Shane inside their new tattoo shop, Garnet Tattoo, in Pacific Beach. "If you didn't want to tattoo a dick, you sent him to Shane. If you didn't want to tattoo a butthole, you sent him to Shane. Whatever they were uncomfortable doing, Shane would do it. Not because of money, but because he wouldn't judge them."

This open-mindedness has made for some satisfied customers over the years. Looking over his portfolio, it's hard not to be impressed with Wallin's intricacy and attention to detail. He puts pride in his work, and it's easy to see.

But everything changed in 2012. He was approached by a woman named Shari about doing a tattoo of a lace bra on her entire chest. She'd had a double mastectomy after a lengthy battle with breast cancer and had no nipples.

"She had some pretty bad scarring and was embarrassed," Wallin says. "She loved to wear evening dresses and the scars would almost hang out of the sides of the dress. You talk to a lot of women who've had mastectomies and they all talk about doing drive-bys at the mirror—running by the mirror real quick so they don't see. For her, I think it was about gaining some of that sexiness back."

Wallin says Shari loved her tattoo, but it's only toward the end of the story that you realize that he's referring to her in the past tense. Her cancer ultimately returned, this time in her throat, and she passed away two weeks after Shane had finished the bra tattoo.

"She was gone after a couple of months," Wallin says. "Going into that, I really didn't have any idea how much I'd be affected by it. How much it would affect her and, in turn, affect me. I've done a lot of tattooing, but I've never experienced that kind of impact with how a tattoo made someone feel about [herself]. It was really powerful."

Thus, Mastectomy Tattoo was born. Started by the Wallins in 2014, the organization's mission statement says it all: "A tattoo studio built for breast cancer survivors to reclaim what cancer has taken from them."

Garnet Tattoo is an extension of Twilight Tattoo, the shop he opened in Minneapolis in the '90s. Along with their three daughters, Shane and Toni moved to San Diego earlier this year to open up Garnet. Unlike Twilight, Garnet will have a direct focus on custom design for people who've had mastectomies, as well as areola pigmentations and 3-D nipple tattoos.

Shari's bra tattoo

To give a better sense of what tattoo artists like Wallin do, it's best to point out that nipple tattooing has become more and more of an acceptable option for women who've survived breast cancer by having a mastectomy. Even if a woman gets breast implants after the mastectomy, the surgical options for nipple replacement aren't quite as advanced and are limited. Tattooing has become a much more preferable and less invasive option for women, and the results are often impressive.

But for many women, the scars that come with the mastectomy and even those from the implants are hard to live with. Getting a nipple tattoo is one thing, but mastectomies leave awful scarring and disfigurations. That's why over the past decade or so, custom designed breast tattooing for people with breast cancer has become increasingly popular. Because of organizations like, which helps women find artists who might be able to help them, there's less stigma attached to getting breasts tattooed. It can give women a newfound sense of confidence.

"I love it, I really do," Patty Carr says. "I'm flashing people all over the place. I mean, in private, not in public." Carr had a preventive double mastectomy after losing her sister and father to breast cancer. After seeing his work on the website, Carr hired Wallin in April to create a custom tattoo that features a feather design all across her chest.

"I was happy with the decision I made to get the mastectomy, but because of the scars there wasn't a day that went by when I wasn't reminded of it,î Carr says. "A lot of people say be proud of the scars, but for me I just wanted to make the scars something like a piece of art that I like to look at. Anyone who's thinking about it should just go for it."

Back at Garnet Tattoo, Toni and Shane are planning San Diego's second Day, an annual day where tattoo artists all over the country volunteer their time to create custom tattoos. Scheduled for Oct. 10, women can sign up through the website. While Garnet Tattoo is rather quaint, the Wallins hope the event brings attention not just to their business, but to mastectomy tattooing in general.

"It's still very new to a lot of people, and they can't wrap their head around it," Toni Wallin says. "But isn't that what art is? Creating something to make people feel good? I think so."

Patty Carr
Tattoo photos courtesy of Shane Wallin


See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7