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05th Sep 2019

Meet David Allen, the man changing the lives of breast cancer survivors through tattoos

Rebecca O'Keeffe

breast cancer

Just wow.

One in nine women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

According to The Irish Cancer Society, there are 690 breast cancer related deaths in Ireland every year, with 3100 annual diagnoses.

For the last 15 years, ghd has teamed up with The Irish Cancer Society to raise money and awareness for this important cause.

This year is extra special, as the brand has partnered with Chicago-based celebrity mastectomy tattoo artist, David Allen.

David uses his incredible, signature floral tattoo creations, to transform and build back self-esteem for women affected by breast cancer.

Now adorning the new ‘ink on pink’ collection, David’s iconic abstract floral artwork evokes a fierce sense of femininity, with his work becoming much more than a tattoo and instead a powerful statement of self-love and returned confidence, symbolising both life and rebirth.

Last week, I was lucky enough to chat to David about his career, his art and of course, his collaboration with ghd.

Speaking about the start of his career, he spoke about how he tried a desk job, and quickly ruled it out.

“I studied Illustration and Graphic Design throughout education. After being an Art Director, I realised a desk job wasn’t for me. My goal was to make a living with my drawings. At 27, I changed careers and dove into tattooing.”

“I quickly discovered this profession requires both technical and interpersonal skills. It’s a service industry. I started tattooing specifically women after breast cancer 7 years ago to help conceal their scars.”

So, how does a former art director turned tattoo artist start working with breast cancer survivors?

“I had open heart surgery when I was 9 months old – and so I was aware of scars and markings on the body. I had a woman in New York keep getting in touch about my tattoos.”

“She said she liked the look of femininity of the tattoos I create. She had had a single mastectomy and construction and wanted me to tattoo where her scarring was, but no – I hadn’t ever done this kind of tattoo before and knew that the skin would have healed differently. She was so persistent that I ended up flying to Baltimore to meet her and discuss with her further.”

And so, David’s journey began.

“During this process I was hands on with someone and watching them heal. I was using my craft and work which overwhelmed me – I had to take a break and weep. She cried the whole time; her husband was also in tears because she wasn’t previously able to look at herself because she didn’t recognise herself and her body.”

He explained that after he completed the tattoo, he posted it online and saw the work go viral (unsurprisingly).

“I had an influx of demand from other women who had seen it and wanted something similar, so I started doing a few more. Now, I do between 6 and 8 mastectomy tattoos a month – it’s a long process and takes a whole day to complete.”

I asked David why he chose to work this way, and his answer was inspiring.

“It is a way to help me give back and help women who are struggling and in need. I love what I do because I get to see direct change, transformation happen. There’s a shift that happens during the process, it’s a little overwhelming. It’s beautiful.”

“When the women look at themselves in the mirror for the first time, it’s joy, it’s transcendent. They sit differently, their posture changes.”

Before his eyes he gets to witness women take back control of their own bodies – which makes it all worthwhile.

View this post on Instagram

I’ve partnered with @ghdhair to raise $1 million dollars for breast cancer research and organizations, internationally. It’s a vehicle to show the world tattooing can be an option for healing! — A year ago, today, we approached their hair straightener as I would a tattoo… designing based on use and form. — This collaboration is more fitting than it may even seem. Every step along each person’s path is important. During and after treatment, GHD has spent time teaching women how to style and work with their hair. Often, after hair loss, it comes back a different texture. Enabling people with knowledge and the ability to take care of themselves is powerful. — It’s now available in Italy (@ghditalia) and Germany (@ghdhairde). The release is staggered and will be available worldwide soon! #ghdpink #mytattoomystory

A post shared by David Allen (@davidallen) on

“To see that change, it’s drastic. It’s empowering. I’m human, I’m very flawed but when I hear people’s story and how they face death, it gives me strength. There’s a perspective shift that happens when you see their battle with death and their fear of loss. It really puts you in your place and you understand things differently.”

Sure there is a level of personal satisfaction for a job well done, but it really isn’t about that.

“There’s a lot of “thank you’s” but it’s not about that. The women have made it happen: it’s their process, their decision. It’s not about the work I’m doing it’s about the empathy and the message behind it that people matter because they exist. And to be able to use your craft and your skills to contribute to that, that means everything.”

David is used to working with women that have been through a lot, which of course, can be quite a lot emotionally. However, he doesn’t let that get the better of him.

“The process I go through with my clients involves time spent to get to know the people. Every woman communicates differently, every person has a different view of their own body.”

“The consultation is the most important because they get a feeling for who I am, and they can learn to trust and I can help allay their fears or concerns.”

“The majority of women choose not to view the progress of the tattoo, they want to wait until the end. There’s a lot of trust in that.”

“When we get near the end, I know there’s a build-up. Not because of me or what is happening but because of the time spent from the beginning of the process: radiation, chemo, surgery… there’s no end in sight and women have to let happen whatever was going to happen to them. One foot in front of the other. And then at the end there’s this reclaiming of whoever they are.”

“It’s bigger than me, bigger than this process.”

Pretty incredible, right?

What’s even more amazing is the fact that David has taken his artistic abilities to another level, teaming up with ghd to raise money for breast cancer charities.

View this post on Instagram

Using forms to move the eye around. (lumpectomy, nipple censored)

A post shared by David Allen (@davidallen) on

Explaining how the partnership came about, David said:

“The connection with ghd and this partnership makes sense. The amount of effort, thought and money they put into helping women with cancer all over the world is extraordinary. I know I chose to do it because I believed in the company.”

“When I work with my clients, it takes time, we build back their confidence together and these incredible women open up to me. Much like that time you spend with your hairstylist, that intimacy and power of transformation is akin to one another.”

“It’s beautiful to see how hairdressers enable women to feel beautiful. When you think of stylists and the time they spend with their clients – the validation that happens when you hear someone’s story, when you’re listening, when you’re present. That matters. There’s healing in that.”

It all comes down to regaining control, and allowing women to do so.

“There is so much that presents itself when faced with our own mortality: love, fear, turmoil, loss, past trauma, and so on. Getting these tattoos is creating a new mark in their timeline. It’s creating a new point of reference!”

As for the actual design process of the ghd, David treated like a body part.

“I treated it as if it were an arm or a leg, a person’s body. I did the same process that I would with the mastectomy tattoos. I picked the flowers, I photographed them, hand drew different patterns and we came up with 30 to 40 ideas. It was incredible.”

“The whole process was wrapped in love and emotion. I was pretty hands on which was so important to me. What I do is very insular so when this message and these women’s story is out on a grander scheme, that’s beautiful. I want people to see the power and the beauty of these women and the choices they made.”

“It’s amazing that with the sale of each of these tool, money is being actively donated to the Irish Cancer Society to help support the women who are most in need.”

The ghd ink of pink collection is available to buy from the finest salons, premium retailers and

€10 from every device sold will go directly to The Irish Cancer Society.