Barbara Fox, a restorative tattoo artist, preps her ink before she starts work on Julie Swartz, to restore an areola after breast cancer on Thursday, June 1, 2023. Both women are breast cancer survivors, and after her battle, Fox decided to use her talents as an artist to become a restorative tattoo artist. Suzette Wenger LNP | LancasterOnline
Lebanon restorative tattoo artist helps fellow cancer survivors and others ‘feel whole again’
By Ann Rejrat/LNP | LancasterOnline
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Barbara Fox sits back to look at her work on Julie Swartz, nods, then leans in to continue the tattoo. Fox is working on a tattoo few will ever see — a realistic areola on Swartz, a breast cancer survivor.
“You know, it (the tattoo) is not for everybody else,” Swartz says. “It’s just for me and it’s a chance to feel whole again. So it’s sort of a reclaiming. It’s putting my own mark on something that I had no control over.”
The tray to Fox’s side is organized — ink colors sit in small plastic containers that Fox dips the end of her tattoo machine in periodically. The machine creates a steady buzz that mixes with the classic rock from the ’70s and ’80s playing low over a speaker.
Fox, 59, is a breast cancer survivor who became a tattoo artist at 55 to help people who have faced battles like her. She uses her art background to help others through restorative tattooing — or tattooing that reintroduces pigment into the skin in areas where it has been lost or changed. That can mean tattooing areolas or doing scar camouflage.
“If I do my job well, no one knows I did it,” Fox says.
Swartz, 45, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. After treatment, which included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, she was cancer-free for about seven to eight years, she says. Then her cancer returned in the same spot and was stage four, she says. The cancer spread from her lymph nodes to spots on her bones. She did have spots on her liver, but medicine cleared that. However, her cancer has progressed and now she has a lesion on her hip.
She was a high school English teacher but is now on disability.
The two were introduced through a mutual friend. The friend knew Swartz was interested in an areola tattoo and that Fox was doing them.
For Fox, doing restorative tattoos gives her a chance to help people have confidence again in public. It’s where the name of her shop, “Confidence Inked,” comes from.
At 53, Fox was diagnosed with stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer. She underwent eight months of treatment that included a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
Once in remission, Fox began to look for what was next for her.
“They don’t prepare you for after treatment what I refer to as the ‘new version’ of you,” Fox says. “Because it’s you, but you change. You’re just not who you were — you can’t be.”
A lifelong artist, Fox knew she wanted to use her art to help people. She just was unsure how.
“I’ve got to help people with what I’m good at,” Fox says.
While on Facebook, Fox saw an ad for learning scar camouflage and areola tattoos — her “aha moment.” She realized what she could do with her art background. So she began her path to being a restorative tattoo artist.
At about 55, she traveled to Atlanta to attend a conference to learn about scar camouflage and areola tattooing. At the conference, Fox volunteered to be a model and receive areola tattoos but what she got disappointed her.
“It was a giant letdown,” Fox says. “So then, when I left there, I had to figure out how it should be, because that wasn’t right. So then I had to figure out what was right.”
The tattoos she received lacked dimension and felt flat, Fox says.
Fox set out researching online classes. Three years later she found Kara Gutierrez, who owns Spot On Beauty in Kansas City, Missouri. Fox drove to Missouri for a few days to learn from Gutierrez.
“Her goal is to teach people so that more women get better tattoos,” Fox says.
Fox learned the most about doing realistic tattoos under Gutierrez’s guidance. She still reaches out to Gutierrez when she has questions.
Fox signed her lease for her current location in February 2022. She is looking to expand her repertoire; in addition to areola tattooing, she does scar camouflage tattoos for clients who have been in accidents, had surgeries or self-harmed. She’s even practiced tattoos of belly buttons for those who have lost their own through tummy tucks, hernia repair and other surgeries.
She estimates she’s tattooed between 10 to 20 people, about a 50/50 split of scar camouflage to areola tattoos. She is not worried about more work coming her way though. She thinks back to her father, who was a woodworker and always had work. Fox says she trusts and believes in the possibility of being an artist.
She also believes in what her service provides for people.
“When I was in treatment, I was bald and puffy because I was in chemo, and we went to this one restaurant near where I lived. And I truly noticed people literally look away from you,” Fox says. “I personally believe that they see their own mortality and they can’t cope with that. Or it brings up memories for themselves or of people they love.”
Where she belongs
The front room of the tattoo shop is pale blue with light pouring in through the top of the windows. The bottom of the windows have thick wood blinds to cover them.
Fox keeps her short gray hair back with a headband while she works. She repeatedly sits back to take in her work — looking through her pink rim glasses.
When Fox puts down her machine for the last time of the tattoo session, she hands Swartz a purple mirror.
“I love it,” Swartz says “I mean, I was looking forward to it, but I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do.”
When she was in her 20s, Fox used to view life as a road that had milestones where you hit markers, such as getting married or having kids. But now she sees life more like a tree that you climb and what branch you climb decides what branch is next. However, now and then those branches break and you reset, she says.
“I believe all these things that happened were to put me here doing this,” Fox says.