The healing power of tattoos. Yayo interviews the compassionate Bren Kelly
Bren Kelly is an Irish tattooist with a passion for art and a real understanding of her craft. She also believes in using her talent to give to those less fortunate than herself. Yayo sent out blog writer Matt Haddon-Reichardt to interview Bren and find out about her work with cancer patients, her concerns about a second lockdown and how she returned to tattooing after injury sidelined her for three years.
“I started offering nipple tattoos as a way of giving something back to the women and men who have lost their nipples through breast cancer surgery. Sadly it didn’t quite take off as I hoped, but I keep promoting the offer here in Ireland and managed to do a few nipple tattoos over in the UK,” explains Bren over a crackly WhatsApp phone line.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a cosmetic tattooist but I felt I could apply my skills as a tattoo artist to creating realistic nipple tattoos.”
“I don’t charge for the service but I didn’t get the support of the breast cancer surgeons I talked to."
Bren is underselling herself. As you can see from the images her work is exemplary.
“I don’t charge for the service but I didn’t get the support of the breast cancer surgeons I talked to. It’s sad to say but they seemed to look down on me. I’m not taking anything away from their abilities as surgeons but I could see from the nipple tattoos they were performing that their set up was all wrong, right down to the needles they were using. Some were doing more harm than good and creating scars. It’s really tough for someone to go through a procedure like a nipple tattoo, after a full or partial mastectomy, so I felt it was really important to do a great job. Unfortunately the people I talked to in the medical profession said that it wasn’t a priority for them.”
Sadly cancer is big business and Bren offering free tattoos put several noses out of joint. She continues to offer free nipple tattoos and is happy to take enquiries from people wanting the service or just those happy to promote it.
The focus of recent interviews is how tattooist have been surviving the Covid lockdown. Bren has taken it in her stride.
“I was off sick from work for a month before lockdown started so in total I’ve had 4 months off,” she explains as I fiddle with my broadband settings trying to get a better connection.
“I run a private studio so I’m my own boss. I don’t drink or party and I had enough savings. Her in Ireland anyone who had to stop working due to the Coronavirus got three hundred and fifty Euros a week from the government. As soon as I started back on the 29th July I was booked up till September. That’s fine by me but we will have to see how it pans out with the new restrictions.”
“I feel a second lockdown is inevitable."
By restrictions Bren means a second lockdown.
“I feel a second lockdown is inevitable. We just don’t know enough about this virus and so many people just aren’t taking it seriously. People just don’t know how to be polite. Just wear a mask and wash your hands. It’s not oppressive or an infringement on your human rights to ask you to be sensible and protect those that are vulnerable.”
While many tattooists found here months of enforced work absences difficult to manage Bren has plenty of experience in being unable to do the job she loves.
“I was off work for three years and unable to tattoo, so three months was light in comparison. I had a sports injury that messed up my arm and made it impossible to work. When I had healed I had to take things slowly, building up my confidence and skills. I started on close friends and family and I can’t thank them enough for their support.”
"Since I started seven or eight years ago a lot has changed and artists have learned so much; including me."
Thankfully Bren is back working at full capacity and is building a strong reputation. She prides herself on looking at a tattoo as a long term investment rather than an Instagram post.
“You see some realism work in online and it looks stunning. Then you see the healed tattoo in the flesh and it’s faded. Since I started seven or eight years ago a lot has changed and artists have learned so much; including me. Some people look at my fresh work and say it’s too dark but what many people don’t realise that in the healing of the tattoo and the natural process of the ink sinking and settling you lose anything from twenty or thirty percent of intensity. When you first do the tattoo you are essentially stripping a layer of skin back. When that regrows it makes the tattoo less vibrant. So a tattoo that looks too dark when complete will look just right several months down the line”
I ask if she thinks another lockdown will damage tattooing long term.
“No, not at all. I don’t think tattooing has peaked. In fact I think people are getting better educated and informed about tattooing. Here in Ireland people wouldn’t travel to get tattooed. Now people will go two hours or more to get work from an artist they have see online, or where they have seen their work in the flesh. The artists who love what they do will always find a way. Be it a recession, losing your home, a pandemic or floods and typhoons; if you want to tattoo you will find a will and a way. We earn good money doing what we do and there is always an artist around to match your budget, needs and style. Tattooing has always been here and it’s not going away, Covid or no Covid.”
“Live your life not in fear. Just be sensible.”
With a second lockdown on the horizon Bren is future proofing her business.
“I’ve been working hard and saving money to cover six months of rent. When it happens I’ll use my time wisely; drawing, practicing on fake skin and tattooing my fiancé. It just frustrated me that people aren’t taking it seriously. In Asia they seem to know what they are up against after SARS.”
Bren asked how I have been coping; I confess I have been bricking it.
“Live your life not in fear. Just be sensible,” her words of comfort echoing down the phone line. “Wear a mask and wash your hands. It’s easy to get information overload with the internet and get bombarded by conspiracy theories and fake news. I know a local artist who refuses to wear a mask; that’s just selfish.”
The line drops and a delay kicks in. I switch from WIFI to mobile data and back and the problem temporarily disappears. I ask Bren if her plans for 2020 are now on hold.
“Things have changed. I had plans to do guest spots but that’s now out of the question. I’m looking at taking some online seminars to keep developing my skills. I’m looking at one with Thomas Carli Jarlier; he does beautiful realism work. He knows how to put just the right amount of detail in so that its looks realistic but nothing is lost in the healing process. My ongoing goal is to make my tattoos look good long term. After all Instagram images fade, a tattoo is for life.”
A final thought from the author: "What I love about writing for the Yayo blog is the freedom to explore the world of tattooing. Yes we like to focus on sponsored artists and those that already use Yayo but its great to spread our wings beyond the burgeoning family. Bren's tattooing is great and the work she does helping cancer patients overcome obstacles is beyond measure. If you know someone who would benefit from Bren's work then please get in touch with her at the address below."
Yayo, be part of the family!
Images by Bren Kelly, Yayo and NHS England