Mary Jane Haake in her Northwest Portland home

Image: Thomas Teal

After a 40-year career as a tattoo artist, Mary Jane Haake is set to retire at the end of 2018. Haake, 67, specializes in medical tattooing—she’s one of two tattoo artists in the nation credentialed by insurance companies to give reconstructive breast tattoos after mastectomies, and the first in the country to earn a degree in tattooing. Haake’s long career weaves German punks, lectures across the globe, and a small business empire. But first and foremost, nipples.

Tell us what you do.

I do skin toning. I can take out any kind of light scar. If the scar is white I can make it blend completely, go away.

How did you develop this skill?

I was a painting sculpture major at Portland Art Museum School [which later became the Pacific Northwest College of Art]. Back in 1978, I was taking a humanities class, and the guy said, “I want you to walk into a store you’d never walk in normally, and find the beauty in a hole, a fork, or whatever. Go. Everything is art.” So my friend and I went down to Skid Row and walked into what we thought was a head shop. It was a tattoo parlor. There was an old couple sitting at a cardboard table eating tuna sandwiches, and they had their little poodle up on the table. He turned to me and he said, “I’m Bert Grimm, and I’ve tattooed more people all over than anyone in the world.” He talked me into getting my first tattoo that day. It’s a little flower. He was 78 at the time.

I started being friendly with Bert and working nights there. My parents thought I was still [workng at a] law office and working nights at the art school. They lived in Utah. It went pretty well until my dad showed up outside with a priest. They were going to deprogram me like a Moonie. My mom was a nurse—she was sure I had hepatitis.

So you got far, far away?

I did my thesis over in Italy in 1980. Florence, Italy. I took my tattoo gear there. I just worked on all the other art students. There were a whole bunch of punk rocker students from Germany. They didn’t care if I tattooed a grocery list across their face. That’s where I learned permanent makeup. I came back from Italy, and while I was working on my thesis, I sent a video to all the doctors in town and told them that I do permanent makeup. They all just started referring people.

Tell us about reconstructive breast tattoos.

[Take a completely flat breast.] When you don’t have anything there it looks like a surgical site, and you notice. But once you get the headlights on straight it all goes away. The most obvious things are the nipples. Nobody really analyzes boobs much.

How many postmastectomy women do you tattoo?

Probably 1,500 to 2,000 [annually]. I’m booked through the end of the year. I’ve always been booked months in advance. Everybody’s got a daughter or a friend.

What do you if someone can’t afford your services?

I let them cook for me. It costs them a plate of lasagna. There are a lot of people that have lost their insurance. They’d been having surgeries for five, six years. It can be a two- or three-year extravaganza. People have made me jewelry. I don’t believe in giving the work out for free.

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