Cancer survivor, tattoo artist finds silver lining

As a tattoo artist, Tai Orten’s most important concern is that her clients are happy with their tattoo. Ask her about what overcoming cancer meant to her, and she says it has taught her a great deal of compassion. As a result she feels more connected to the people who sit down in her chair.

“A lot of times people don't experience what it means to be really, really sick until they're older, so I got a little bit of that under my belt, which I think can give you a different perspective,” she said. “Clients who come into the shop — there's a lot of people who are affected by millions of diseases but particularly cancer — you hear 'my family member has that.' When I have clients that have that or have gone through that, immediately I say, 'I went through that, too.'”

When she was a junior in college, Orten was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Burkitt's lymphoma, which is more prevalent among children in Africa. 

“It's not very common here at all,” she said. “You might have 300 cases a year, if that.”

Having had a rare medical condition might have made her feel more isolated, but it didn’t. 

That’s despite the fact that while growing up she felt like an outsider in Kentucky because of her sexual orientation and because she liked body art and modification when most people around her seemed so conservative. After her illness, she started to see what she had in common with others. 

“You always find something to relate to with people, whereas before I used to separate myself a little, ‘Oh, I’m different,” she said, “It kinda comes back around where you find those nuisances and similarities you can relate to.” 

Orten was able to successfully treat her cancer, and is now in remission, but when she was diagnosed with it in 2005, it turned her world upside down. 

Coming into her own

Because of her illness she had to take time off from school and wasn’t able to finish college. 

“They took my scholarships away,” she said. 

Orten said she was lucky to have a family who supported her and accepted her sexuality but she said she still had to come to terms with her homosexuality. 

She came out to family when she was 14, but it was only until she went to art school when she felt comfortable telling strangers. 

“I think I kind of had the issues of trying to figure out where I stood in terms of religious views ... especially growing up in an area where that was so important,” she said. 

After beating cancer, she became focused on becoming a tattoo artist. She turned to an artist whom she highly respected: Jerry Rigger, of Metropolis, Ill., and he got her an apprenticeship with Charles "Tattoo Charlie" Wheeler in Louisville, Ky.

After working at a few shops, she ended up at Nashville’s Electric Hand Tattoo, which she loves. She said she has a really good working relationship with them as an independent contractor.

“I pretty much do appointment only now, and just kind of do my own thing,” she said. “It’s a really chill environment, and that’s exactly what I wanted.” 

To find out more about Orten or contact her, visit


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