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Portland Is One of the Only Places Where Breast Cancer Patients Can Get Nipple Tattooing, Covered By Insurance

Mary Jane Haake is Portland's Best Nipple Tattooist.

You'll probably only get tattooed by Mary Jane Haake for one of three reasons: You're a die-hard tattoo fan who's heard about her work for years; you're a regular client, like the Portland SWAT team; or you're a medical patient.

Haake has been a staple of the Portland tattoo scene since the 1980s—she was featured in WW's 1986 Best of Portland issue for "Best Tattoo Parlour." But since then, Haake has become a pioneer in medical tattooing, as one of only two tattoo artists in the country credentialed by insurance companies to give reconstructive tattoos for mastectomy.

Haake tattoos more than 2,500 women each year, who come from all over the country for her to color-correct and tattoo nipples to post-surgical breasts that have lost theirs.

"This is a surgical site," she says pointing to a photo of a mangled, discolored breast crafted to look like a small mountain by a doctor. She then points to a photo of the same breasts, with perfectly-painted nipples; it looks 3-D: "And this is a set of boobs. It's just like oil painting."

Haake, who lives in a huge Pearl District apartment with floor-to-ceiling plants and—at least on our visit—America's "I Need You" blasting, first found tattooing in her late 20s. After moving to Portland in 1976 with her third ex-husband, she worked for a law office during the day and took painting and sculpture classes at night at Pacific Northwest College of Art. For one assignment, she was told to walk into any building and think about how what is in there could be art. So she wandered into a tattoo shop in 1970s Old Town.

"I'm Bert Grimm, and I've tattooed more people than anyone in the world," a 78-year-old man greeted her when she walked inside. He was eating a tuna fish sandwich and drinking a glass of whiskey. Grimm had tattooed the entire circus casts of Barnum & Bailey, along with Bonnie and Clyde.

Haake was mesmerized. She went back that night after work and got her very first tattoo, a cabbage flower on her upper thigh. She later became the first person in the U.S. to receive a college degree in tattooing.

During her apprenticeship with Grimm, she learned the art of medical tattooing by watching him tattoo World War I victims, camouflaging scars from gas wounds and burns. She went on to work in the burn unit at Emanuel Hospital, a major credential that led to her getting authorized to do work for insurance companies. But if patients don't have insurance, Haake barters. Many women will cook lasagna for her, cut her hair or give her manicures.

"It changes your life," she says of the work she does with medical patients. "Why would I do anything else?"

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