Rachael Frederick refers to her and her husband, Brett Murdock, as a “colorful couple,” which is literally true.
Frederick, 33, has pixie hair dyed blue and purple, a tattoo of a phoenix on the back of her neck, video game characters on both shoulders and a sci-fi TV character on her right calf. “I have others in unmentionable places,” she said.
Murdock, 31, a 2002 graduate of Blue Valley North High School, is a lean guy with a hipster’s goatee, a laid-back manner and 12 tats of his own, including a nine-tailed fox called a Kurama, a gypsy lady on his neck, a dragon on his left ankle and skull and bones on his thigh.
Typically, Murdock charges $125 an hour for the ink he lays down as a tattoo artist at Waldo’s Darkside Tattoo on Wornall Road. As such, he’s a bit mystified at why no one has yet taken him up on a type of tattoo that he can’t seem to give away.
A few weeks back, Murdock posted a Craigslist announcement: ***FREE NIPPLE TATTOOS FOR MASTECTOMY PATIENTS***
The post reads: “I have been tattooing for over ten years (both locally and in Hawaii, where I was trained), and would be happy to provide my services FREE OF CHARGE to clients who have lost one or both of their breasts due to mastectomy.”
It explained. “(M)y wife was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and lost both of her breasts to this horrible disease.”
Frederick is determined to defeat breast cancer with both defiance and humor. When she and Murdock met, she was a petite firebrand with raven Bettie Page bangs and the kind of pinup endowments that, frankly, Frederick said she prided herself on.
“I kind of saw the irony in this,” she said. “I was like a double-D cup before I started up with this. I was a bartender. I used it. To all of a sudden go to this, well, that nice rack comes with a price.”
Her cancer is aggressive.
“It came out of nowhere,” Murdock said. “It happened terrifyingly fast.”
By the time Frederick’s cancer was diagnosed last year, it had already spread to her lymph nodes. Tests showed it was “triple-negative,” meaning that her tumor cells don’t process any of the three main receptors that would make the cells amenable to cancer-fighting hormone therapies.
Her breasts were removed a little more than three months ago. She endured both radiation and chemotherapy.
“Hair is hair; it grows back,” Frederick said of the loss of her locks. “Breasts can be created. After I found out that I could actually have implants, I sort of envisioned myself as a hobby car. I’m in the garage right now. I’m waiting for parts.”
Sensitized to the toll the illness takes, including the removal of nipples during breast surgery, Murdock posted his offer.
“I became a tattoo artist because I wanted my art to matter,” he said. “I wanted to make the world a little bit brighter, I guess.”
He calls his wife a “bad-ass warrior” and a “superhero.” There have been tears and worries, he said.
“There has been, ‘Do you still find me attractive?’ There has been: ‘These are the things I prided myself on. Now what am I going to do?’” Murdock said. “I tell her that every little scar is a testament to how strong she is. I say that in absolute earnest. She is shockingly, terrifyingly strong sometimes.”
Other tattoo artists offer nipple tattoos. Whispering Danny’s Exile Tattoo on West 39th Street, for example, has done them for years. Nurses at many plastic surgeons’ offices have been trained to do them.
Roxanne Edwards, 58, has been doing them for three years as a nurse in the plastic surgery department at the University of Kansas Hospital. She called the work “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
She has long been a fan of tattoos, having received a major piece of her own about a decade ago.
“Almost my whole back is tattoos,” she said. “No one knows I have it. It’s a blue heron. It goes from the top of my back to my mid hip.”
For the nipple tattoos, Edwards trained at the American Institute for Intradermal Cosmetics in Texas, where she also learned to apply eyebrows and lip lines for patients who have lost them as a consequence of other procedures or ailments. Nipple tattoos bring the most satisfaction.
“It is very emotional,” Edwards said. “A lot of women have come to me and said they didn’t think they needed them and have gone years without having it done. But, as soon as they do, it makes a world of difference. They will look in the mirror and instantly get emotional. They will say to me, ‘I am a woman again.’ I cry with them.”
Spokesmen for insurers Aetna and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City said that medical policies typically cover the cost of applying nipple tattoos as part of breast cancer treatment and reconstruction. But the application of a tattoo, they said, is usually the sign that the reconstruction is over.
“They consider the tattoo to be the final phase,” Edwards said. “Anything after the tattoo is not covered.”
It generally takes no more than an hour to do a single tattoo, she said.
KU charges insurance based on size, ranging from $496 for a tattoo 6 square centimeters or less up to $1,111 for a tattoo at 20 square centimeters or greater. Insurers also will reimburse for the work if it is done by a tattoo artist, the insurance company spokesmen said.
Edwards said that while she considers the work she does to be highly realistic, her training and experience are different from that of Murdock and his fellow body artists.
“I’m not the same as a tattoo artist,” she said. “I’m not artistic like that.”
Murdock said that is precisely the reason he thought he could help. If someone takes him up on his free offer, that tattoo will be the first nipple he has done.
“Honestly,” he said, “it is a very simple tattoo. It’s not technically difficult. You just have to know what you’re doing.”
Color mixing, feathering colors and shadowing — “there’s a lot of tricks to make it just right,” he said.
As part of his free tattoo offer, Murdock did add one caveat — to be able to photograph the work for a portfolio for other clients and perhaps insurers. He said that eventually he would like to charge insurance for the tattoos.
“The rule is I don’t want anyone to pay out of their own pocket,” he said. “I don’t agree with how pricey they can get.”
One final irony: Whenever the time comes for Frederick to receive implants, she’s thinking she might get something other than nipple tattoos.
Her choice: iridescent dragon scales. A tear-away tattoo along the border of her scars that leaves the impression that should her skin be torn away, her body is made of dragon armor.
“I sort of have had people tell me how strong I am,” Frederick said, “or how courageous. I don’t see it that way. I just see it as I don’t have the option to crumble. If that translates into strength, I prefer it to be in the form of armor.
“It (cancer) can take my hair away, and my breasts away and my energy and my concentration, but at the core of it, I’m still me. It’s not going to take who I am away.”