Argentine tattoo artist helps women embrace their scars

Diego Staropoli tattoos Romina Lopez. (Ryan Hayes-Owens and Drake Wilson/MEDILL)

By Ryan Hayes-Owens and Drake Wilson
Medill Reports

BUENO AIRES — Diego Staropoli is best known as a celebrity tattoo artist. But after losing his mother, aunt and grandmother to breast cancer, Staropoli began providing free tattoos to women who had mastectomies. What began as tattoos to replace scarred areolas has since expanded to help thousands of women embrace their scars from breast cancer treatment, domestic violence and burns. Romina Lopez is one of the women Staropoli helped by transforming her scars into marks of joy.


DIEGO STAROPOLI: I started tattooing in the year 1990, when I was 18 years old. For some reason, by accident, I ended up getting a tattoo. And the moment I got tattooed I decided to get involved in the tattoo world. My grandmother, my mother and aunt and many years later even my father suffered from cancer. Specifically, my grandmother, my mother and my aunt had breast cancer. So they were the ones who inspired me to start working for free with breast cancer survivors doing breast wound reconstruction.

ROMINA LOPEZ: I found Mandinga Tattoo on Instagram, that they were tattooing a girl who was burned, who was burned all over her body and they were tattooing her. I wanted to feel the same as her. I felt the thrill of covering her scars.

STAROPOLI: Romina is a girl who has more than 70% of her body burned. She is of very humble origin. She lived with her family in the interior of the country. When she was little, they came to live here in the city. They lived in a pension, a kind of hotel in very poor condition, and from a short circuit, the place caught fire.

LOPEZ: My mom woke me up and woke up my brothers who were younger than me. I was 8 years old, and they thought I had left, but they were gone. With the stuff inside, they had already given me up for dead or that I had caught on fire. I got up alone, and there was no one there. And I cried and asked for help, but I didn’t know where I was. I had the will. I got up and went outside, and I got up and I couldn’t walk, my whole body was burned. That burned me to the bone, like something out of a nightmare. (The burns) practically put me through hell because I didn’t feel comfortable with myself. I didn’t want to go to school because I was bullied a lot, and I suffered a lot because I didn’t want to be around people, because I felt everyone’s eyes on me. I had sent some pictures to (Staropoli) showing him my scars, and he told me he wasn’t tattooing anymore. He had to go to America, and he was kind of not ready to take on another girl. But he saw that I was destroyed, I was all burned and I told him that I was covered up for many years. Then he called me, and when he called I couldn’t believe he was calling me, and he told me, “I’m going to change your life.”

STAROPOLI: The women, they come to us with a lot of fear, with a lot of shame. They come from surgeries, operating rooms, denial and shame on their partners, shame on their scars, shame on not having a breast, and the impact when they finish that little tattoo — the visual impact of when they see themselves in front of a mirror is almost always the same great emotion of much gratitude. And really in that moment that little tattoo changes their lives.

LOPEZ: I do feel that peace. I feel free in a different way. Once when I went to the beach, I wore flip-flops and put on shorts and a T-shirt, and I felt like a child. It’s really like every day I learn how to feel like a child for the first time. But it’s like I feel, I feel like a goddess and really free and good.

STAROPOLI: She is literally a new woman to me. And I say the day I stop getting excited about that reaction, that’s the day I have to be OK and be done with this work.

Filmed in Buenos Aires in February 2023 with the support of local reporter Valeria Lopez. Ryan Hayes-Owens and Drake Wilson are Medill graduate students in the video & broadcast specialization. You can connect with either of them on their websites and