More Than Skin Deep: How Odyssey Wellness Tattoo Changes Lives

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday February 9, 2019

Sure, Darlene DiBona can do, and does, magnificent tattooing for folks who simply want to ink their skin with beautiful works of art. But while the proprietor of Odyssey Wellness Tattoo in Brookline, Massachusetts, has a general mission of providing a safe space for anyone who wants to get tattooed for any reason, she specializes in working with people who have undergone mastectomies and gender reassignment surgery.

It is DiBona's goal that these clients, so often marginalized by society, are made to feel comfortable and emotionally supported at Odyssey.

To that end, DiBona operates out of a private studio with a door separating the lobby and work area. Barring Saturdays here and there, she takes few walk-ins, guaranteeing discretion.

Just as crucially, she says, "We really focus on being emotionally sensitive to people's needs. Women who have been through breast cancer have endured serious emotional and physical trauma. Whether I've done an areola reconstruction tattoo or tattooed a design over mastectomy scars, it's not unusual for a client to cry when they see themselves because they're so relieved. They feel pretty again."

"I think it's similarly emotional for trans men," DiBona adds, "because when they look in the mirror, they want to see reflected how they feel on the inside."

A Passion Found
DiBona, who grew up in the Boston area, attended Ithaca College as a fine arts major with an emphasis in sculpture. But it wasn't until she arrived in the Bay Area in 1996 that she discovered what would become her life's work. DiBona began by getting heavily tattooed herself before she turned to inking others in 1999. She's worked in studios including Sacred Rose in San Francisco, Skin Deep Tattoo in Maui, and at Fat Ram's Pumpkin Tattooing in Boston. She opened Odyssey Wellness in 2016. (See more of her work on Instagram at @osyssey_wellness.)

In 2009, DiBona studied areola tattooing at the John Hashey School for Cosmetic Tattooing in Oldsmar, Florida. It appealed immediately to her, she says.

"The artistic work itself is fascinating, and then the fact that I'm being of service to somebody is really attractive to me. This is really fulfilling a need in someone's life — it's making a huge difference to them. I wanted my work to have more meaning, so it seemed pretty natural that I start gravitating toward that type of tattooing."

Loving the Skin You're In
DiBona prefers her clients take a year post-surgery to heal before they make their first tattoo appointment. Scar tissue can be challenging to tattoo, and radiation treatments may make skin fragile, so she takes her time, working on the tattoo over two or three appointments spaced a month apart. For areola reconstruction specifically, the sessions take about 30 to 45 minutes for each breast. For some, it can be physically painful, in which case will DiBona use a topical anesthetic.

"It's different with trans men because I don't have to worry if they've had radiation," DiBona says. "Their skin is as healthy and thick as it ever was, it's just that there's scar tissue to deal with. It's pretty common for the pigmentation to be compromised from a nipple graft, so there's a little bit of scarring, maybe the shape isn't quite circular anymore. We can round that out and smooth everything so it looks more natural. And needling into the scar tissue actually helps break it up and flatten it out a little more, which is a nice byproduct of the whole process."

Whether you're coming to Odyssey Wellness to complete the final step in healing from a mastectomy or gender reassignment surgery, DiBona knows it can be an experience fraught with deep emotions.

"You have to hold energetic space for people so that it is okay for them to cry," DiBona shares. "I'm the one that's there saying it's okay, you can be what you need to be here, you don't have to be strong right now, you can just feel your feelings. My clients are entrusting me with their body, and they're also entrusting me with their emotional state, and that's a big responsibility. I don't take that lightly."

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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.

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