In 2005, after 25 years at Canada Post, Jacqueline Sokol found herself looking for a new career. On-the-job injuries meant she could no longer work as a mail carrier. Inspiration came in the form of a TV program — a documentary that showed a man transforming the scars on a woman’s back into a tattoo. He worked the raised skin of the scar into a design, and the result was stunning.
“The woman had scars so horrific that she would no longer wear a bathing suit,” says the 53-year-old mother. “Her life was profoundly affected. Once she got her tattoo and they weren’t visible anymore, it amazing to see how happy she was. And I thought, ‘I can do that. I can paint and draw. I just need to learn how to use a needle.’”
Sokol enrolled in a tattoo academy in 2007 to learn the basics and has been working as a tattoo artist ever since. But her work is different from that of most artists. Along with the usual shamrocks and names of sweethearts, she offers special services at So Kool Tattoos, located in a bright and airy studio in the town of Paris, Ont. Like the artist from the film that inspired her, she is now applying her talents to helping men and women who have undergone medical procedures that have left them with visible scars.
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“Just last week, I had a gentleman in my shop who had had open-heart surgery, and he wanted the scar down the middle of his chest covered up,” she says. “But you have to wait three years post-procedure before I can work on it. Scars change colour. They shrink and spread. Once a scar settles, I can look at it and try to see what's there. The scar’s own characteristics dictate what it wants to become in terms of design.”
Sokol has also begun working with women who have had single or double mastectomies as part of their breast cancer treatment. Using delicate needlework and a range of flesh-coloured tattoo inks, she creates nipples and areolae on top of the scar tissue.
Her first patient for the procedure came through a friend. The woman had consulted with a plastic surgeon, who offered to replicate nipples using a tattoo method. But as a cosmetic procedure, it would not have been covered by medical insurance — it would have cost $1,000. Sokol offered a more affordable alternative. When she first started doing nipples, she wouldn’t accept payment from clients, requesting instead that they make a donation to the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. Since then, demand has grown: she now charges $100 an hour — each nipple tattoo takes roughly 90 minutes.
Although she was nervous and admits that she felt like “a basket case” before tackling a nipple tattoo for the first time, she remembers telling her client confidently, “If I can draw it, I can tattoo it. If you trust me, let's do it. If you don’t, I will understand.”
While Sokol was doing the tattoo, her client described her journey with cancer. “I totally forgot about being nervous and was just doing my thing and listening to her,” she says. “My heart breaks hearing their stories. These women have gone through a horrendous time.”
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At a surgeon’s office, women wanting augmentations, reductions, or reconstruction are asked what kind of breasts they’d like to have. It’s a question that a tattoo artist asks, too. Sokol’s clients find pictures online of their ideal nipple and send them to her to interpret into a tattoo. If the client has had a single mastectomy, she’ll replicate the look and colour of the remaining breast by blending flesh-tone inks.
Jan Cook, a 51-year-old from St. Mary’s, Ont., who works as a spa director for Disney Cruise Line, was referred to Sokol by her plastic surgeon after having a mastectomy in April 2015.
“I wanted to get the tattoo to hide some scarring and to make my breasts look more natural after my surgery,” she says. “It was a bit painful — I’m a wimp with pain — but the results were amazing. I feel more confident, and it makes me feel more feminine. The change has allowed me to look at myself in the mirror and not be so unhappy about the way my breasts look. I can actually say I prefer my new nipples compared to the old ones!”
For Sokol, it’s that kind of reaction that makes what she does so gratifying: “What I do helps women feel like their old selves and makes them feel whole again. It’s an intimate experience. I’m in their space, so they have to be comfortable with me.”
It’s clear they are. Demand has grown steadily as word spreads about the unique service she offers. Clients — some of whom call her “Aunt Jackie” — are often in tears when they visit, having been turned away by other tattoo parlours because doing nipples or working with scars is not something they’re comfortable with.
Sokol’s work is a natural extension of an interest she’s had her whole life. When she was 5 years old, she won a Mickey Mouse watch after her mom mailed in some of her drawings to an art contest. As a child who grew up on a farm and lived without television, she’d spend her time sketching and colouring.
On allowance days, she’d spend her money on a new paint-by-numbers kit. “It was just a hobby,” she says. “Even while I worked at the post office, I participated in art shows, but I never imagined I’d be doing something like this with my skills and being able to help people in such a meaningful way.”
Michele Sponagle is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and Flare.