THE IDEA OF tattoos may conjure up images of hulking bikers with snakes and the word Mom etched on their biceps, or it may call to mind exotic lands where women dye their skin in tribal rituals. But in recent years, cosmetic and medical applications have helped tattooing join the American mainstream.
In Los Angeles, 43-year-old Sheila May was one of the first tattoo artists to provide clients with permanent eye liner, lip liner and eyebrows. And she is widely respected by plastic surgeons and dermatologists for camouflaging surgical scars.
May learned her craft in the Midwest 25 years ago when she was married to a tattoo artist. In those days, her clients included bikers and servicemen who wanted their forearms and chests decorated with dragons and Harley Davidson logos. It wasn't until May moved to Southern California that she attracted upscale women clients.
"It occurred to me that if I could mix colors that matched eyebrow pencils--if it looked like makeup--women would want it," May recalls. And they did. In 1979, she began offering permanent eye liner as an alternative to conventional makeup. So far, she says, she has applied liner on more than 1,000 clients.
May works in conjunction with ophthalmologist Richard Holmes of Pacific Palisades. In the office they share, Holmes first consults with eye-liner clients, records their medical history and examines their eyes for infection. Provided clients are in good health, he sends them on to May.
Under Holmes' supervision, an office nurse numbs the eyelids with lidocaine. May then uses a tattoo machine with five tiny needles to push iron-oxide-based pigment in and out of the skin like a sewing machine needle. The process stings but is usually bearable, she says.
Client Renate Allen, owner of a nail salon near San Diego, has had the works: eyes, lips and brows. "I keep asking her, 'Can't you do eye shadow and rouge?' " Allen says, noting that the permanent makeup has simplified her beauty regime and boosted her self-confidence as well. "It used to be when I'd go dancing, my eyebrows would end up on my date's cheek," she says. "Now I don't have to worry."
Also in 1979, May branched out into medical tattooing. She has filled in tiny face-lift scars and disguised white patches of skin caused by a disorder called vitiligo. She has even created areolae for mastectomy patients with reconstructed breasts.
Client Cathy Masamitsu, the assistant to the executive producer of ABC's "Home" show, learned she had cancer in her right breast last year and had to have it removed. After her plastic surgeon, Harry Glassman of Beverly Hills, reconstructed the breast, Masamitsu wanted to know if it could be made to look more like her left one. Glassman referred her to May.
"Without a nipple, the breast is just a mound. You look like a Barbie doll," says Masamitsu, who wanted her areolae to match. "My (real) nipple is a combination of yellow tones and browns and pinks because I'm Asian. Sheila worked her magic. The color (of the new nipple) is pretty darn close to perfect."
Client Patty Winston (not her real name), an office manager in West Los Angeles, suffers from alopecia universalis, the loss of all body hair. She wears a wig, but she has been without eyebrows and eyelashes since 1978. She suffered through painful cortisone injections to stimulate hair growth and thought of suicide.
"I would look at my face in the morning and see two blue orbs," Winston says. Then she met May in 1982. "Now people tell me how beautiful my eyes are. They can't tell I don't have eyebrows or eyelashes. Part of the good feeling I have about myself is from Sheila."
The tattooing is not only expensive but also time-consuming. Eye liner ($750) takes about an hour, as do lip liner ($450) and eyebrows ($450). Areolae ($300 to $400) and face-lift scars ($450) take less time. Prices include consultation and touch-ups. (The pigments fade considerably. Eye liner and brows may need repeating after about four years. Lighter scar-tissue colors last about 18 months.)
Given the pain, the expense and the temporary appeal, why does anyone choose to undergo tattooing? Because, May points out, some women spend up to 45 minutes a day putting their eyebrows on, getting them straight. "It's not just vanity. It's a matter of convenience and precision."