Lucy Thompson started tattooing when she discovered a passion for art, discovered through the love of her grandparent’s paintings.
After drawing and painting became Lucy’s go-to thing she wanted to channel it into her job, which naturally led her into tattooing.
But six years after starting out, Lucy’s tattoos have one main theme – they are all realistic, 3D tattoos of nipples.
The hyper-realistic tattoos can boost the confidence and self-esteem of those who’ve gone through life changing surgery and not just that, Lucy has set up a charity so anyone and everyone who needs them have access to them.
Despite Lucy’s work being vital to so many people, pictures she posts on Instagram keep getting removed or banned for going against community guidelines.
Lucy has spoken to YorkshireLive about her fascinating work and career – why she wants Instagram to stop deleting her areolas and how each nipple she works on is an oil painting.
Lucy, from Bradford, said: “I’ve been tattooing since 2014, after spending years and years trying to get an apprenticeship in a male-dominated industry.
“I come from a family of artists and farmers, a vast contrast in professions, and I grew up admiring my grandparent’s artwork.
“They are self-taught painters and I recall spending hours sat with them being taught new drawing and painting skills. Drawing and painting have always been go-to activities throughout my life and when I left school I wanted to do something creative, I just never knew what.”
When Lucy, a single mum to her 11-year-old son, got her first tattoo, she was fascinated by the process and decided to pursue tattooing as a career, leading her to an apprenticeship – a route which many artists take to hone their skills.
Lucy’s natural flair for the job led her to open her own tattoo studio. After feeling confident and empowered by the tattoos on her own body, she wanted to do the same for others.
She said: “When I opened the studio I was asked several times if I could tattoo over self-harm scars.
“People approached me and said other tattoo artists had said it was too difficult to do and they couldn’t help them because the scars were too bad.
“Now, this surprised me because I felt if anything, a tattoo is more important to people who have scars as scars can be a reminder of past trauma – a constant reminder of a time in their life they wanted to forget. This inspired me to further my knowledge in tattooing on scar tissue.
“I started a scar cover-up project, giving a free tattoo away every month to someone who couldn’t afford a cover-up but needed one. I was in a position to be able to help to heal others with beautiful artwork and I wanted to do what I could to make a difference.”
Lucy added that a year into this project, she was approached by someone who asked her if she could do a nipple tattoo.
She said: “This was the first time I’d ever heard of a nipple tattoo. They told me they’d had one done at the hospital, but it already faded.
“I was shocked – hospitals and tattooing? So I went away and did some research.”
Lucy found that many people who’ve had mastectomies and lost their nipples can get them tattooed on at the hospital, but often found them to be basic and unrealistic – and they faded fast.
Lucy approached her auntie, who had breast cancer in the past, and asked her whether she had a nipple tattoo herself.
Lucy said: “She said it had faded away, she doesn’t look at it and that was that.
“It really saddened me to hear this coming from my auntie. She was a survivor of ten years – and for her not to want to talk about that or even look at her body truly pained me. I couldn’t understand it.”
Lucy began researching nipple tattoos and whether anyone in the UK offered realistic inkings that were permanent and wouldn’t fade away.
She discovered a collective of US-based artists on Instagram who did realistic areola tattoos and sent a message over asking them for advice.
For Lucy, the rest was history – she knew she’d found her calling. She signed up for a masterclass on nipple tattoos in Texas and headed off to learn the trade.
She said: “It was life-changing, it truly was. On the third day, I did my first ever nipple tattoo for a lovely lady whose surgeon told her that due to her unilateral mastectomy (where only one breast is removed) she wouldn’t be able to get a tattoo to match the other side.
“She was devastated and wanted to feel “normal” and “whole” again… no pressure then! But I managed to create not only a new tattoo but we got a good match to her natural nipple. She was elated and I was over the moon, it was life-changing, it truly was.”
Lucy returned to the UK and began to build her experience, offering nipple tattoos to 20 clients for free to build up her portfolio.
She opened Yorkshire Mastectomy tattoos because she wanted a safe, private space for clients.
Eventually, Lucy knew she needed to start charging for her nipple tattoos in order to make a living.
But she found clients weren’t able to claim on their insurance for her services as she was a tattoo artist, and she was concerned that others may not be able to afford it.
She said: “This got me thinking, if only there was a pot of money to be able to pay for this specialist and challenging work, then no-one would have to miss out.
“I had the idea of starting a charitable organisation that could pay for the tattoos – called the Nipple Innovation Project.
“The idea was N.I.P could provide funding for people who needed it – I didn’t feel money should be an issue when seeking this healing and restorative art work.”
N.I.P has six verified artists in the UK and Ireland, and a website where people seeking 3D nipple tattoos can search to find an artist. It became a registered charity in March 2020.
Along with providing funding for tattoos, the long-term goal for N.I.P is to get work like Lucy’s recognised by the NHS as a trusted service, alleviating the pressure on healthcare providers but still offering the service to those who needed it for free.
Lucy added: “Each nipple is different and I see each as an oil painting, building up layers, it’s either a mini-portrait of a natural nipple or from a pre-surgery photograph.
“Every single nipple is unique.
“The best part of the job for me is seeing the sparkle the treatment gives to the client.
“It’s a two-step process, I meet the client and they are often nervous about what to expect, many of them haven’t had a tattoo before.
“Then on their second session I see such a big difference in their confidence, they are full of gratitude and passion. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of – it honestly feeds my soul.
“It’s a niche thing to do and a lot of people have never heard about it, even those with breast cancer themselves.
“Through N.I.P I want to use my voice and passion to raise awareness of permanent nipple tattoos. But, at the minute it’s difficult to be heard on social media because our work often gets taken down for showing ‘nudity or sexual activity’ which is absolutely absurd.”
Lucy said she began noticing her posts on photo sharing platform Instagram be taken down almost straight away when she began posting pics in 2017.
She has had her account deleted before too.
She said: “It is disheartening for me and the people who choose to share their photos with me and give me permission for them to be posted, too.
“Generally it’s how people find me. I call for Instagram to develop a verification system – similar to the blue tick system – for paramedical artists like myself so we have some protection against this happening.
“I just want our voices to be heard – and I want to change the world, one nipple at a time.”
Michala Hughes recently had her nipple tattooed by Lucy.
She’s spoken to YorkshireLive to tell her story, too.
Michala was 39 when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer back in 2015.
She had her breast removed and reconstructed with an implant but she didn’t like the implant as it was cold and she said she could feel it moving.
Michala was put on a waiting list for a breast reconstruction using a flap of skin from her abdomen. She had this procedure done in 2019, but without a nipple she felt like a “blank canvas.”
She said: “I’d previously seen Lucy at Bradford Tattoo Convention and I’d seen what she could do.
“I followed her on Instagram in the middle of last year.”
Michala and Lucy ended up messaging back and forth about what Michala wanted from her tattoo.
She added: “I was supposed to go in June but I couldn’t because of Covid-19.
“But I finally travelled to Bradford on October 24 for my first session.
“This girl is truly amazing and it’s been the icing on the cake for me – I finally feel like a woman again.”