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Jeneen Wilson got the same dispiriting life advice that creative people have been subjected to for generations: “You can’t make a living as an artist. Find something else.”
So she tried. In addition to earning a slew of college credits, she worked in property management, real estate, security, even spent some time in the Army in the 1980s. Nothing fit. The lifelong artist, who had been painting since she was a grade-schooler in California, says she was miserable when she wasn’t using her creative talents.
But along the way, the world kept putting a certain kind of tattooing in front of her, as Wilson describes it, until she said to herself, “OK, I think I can do that.”
Living in Tampa, Florida, by that time, she sought out the best artists to learn from, and completed an eight-month apprenticeship followed by considerable additional training.
“Once I started my apprenticeship I was hooked and it just blossomed from there,” she said.
The term for what Wilson does is “paramedical cosmetic tattooing.” And her specialty is breast cancer survivors. In the process of surgery and reconstruction, the patient’s nipples cannot always be saved. Rather than leave the surface blank, Wilson can tattoo a strikingly realistic areola onto her clients’ breasts, thus restoring a sense of normalcy that would otherwise have been lost forever.
“Cancer is absolutely a traumatic event,” Wilson said. “I want to help them through the process, through their journey, and come to a place where they can really embrace their new breasts and the finishing touch I put on them.”
Wilson came to Blacksburg when her husband took a job at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. She opened her studio, called Primped 365, in August, in a small commercial building at 3225 N. Franklin St. in Christiansburg. The space is bright and streamlined, with a small waiting area, a work area with two tables, and an office. The walls are adorned with some of Wilson’s own paintings.
So far, she says business has been “phenomenal,” with plenty of clients — mostly via word of mouth — and lots of support for what she’s doing.
In addition to breast work, Wilson also does restorative work on eyebrows — not just for cancer patients but for anyone who is losing this defining facial feature. In fact, brows have been a big segment of the business, she says, popular with young and old alike.
Setting up shop was not easy, though. There are very few similar practices in the commonwealth, and there were a lot of hoops to jump through on the path to licensure.
Another challenge has been educating people about what she does.
“A conventional tattoo is ornamental,” said Wilson. “What I do for breast cancer survivors is paramedical tattooing, which is related to the treatment of illness and injury.”
Potential clients should know that not all practitioners can offer the same degree of artistry with regard to their results. Wilson has had clients who needed her to correct an areola that was tattooed elsewhere that came out looking more like a slice of pepperoni than a natural feature. Wilson’s work, by comparison, employs soft edges and other details to create a three-dimensional realism that can be adapted for different sizes and skin tones.
And although it’s less common, men can get breast cancer too, and can also benefit from restorative tattooing.
For anyone facing a breast cancer diagnosis and possible surgery, Primped 365’s literature suggests taking photographs that can serve as a guide for the restorative tattoo process, which, although medical in nature, creates no down time — just some post-procedure care.
Wilson says nothing has fulfilled her the way her current occupation has. She started her line of work because “I wanted to marry my God-given gifts with a way to make a difference in the lives of cancer survivors.”
It seems to be working.
“I have clients that fall into my arms sobbing, they’re just so happy.”