WASHINGTON, August 1, 2014 — The mention of his name makes grown women smile and blush like school girls. Women whisper slyly to each other about their visits to see him. Those who get an appointment with him cannot help but feel a little bit special, and they carefully cross the days off the calendar until the big day arrives.
Two women, who would aptly be described as “little old ladies,” reacted recently with delighted enthusiasm when they ran into him at a conference. Unable to contain their excitement, they held onto each other as they yelled out, “It’s the nipple guy!”
Vinnie Myers has been “the nipple guy” for almost ten years now. It is not a title that he sought out or ever expected, but through a random chain of life events he has become one of the most critically acclaimed and highly sought-after technicians in breast cancer reconstruction today.
Myers is a self taught tattoo artist who picked up the trade to make some extra money while he was in the army.
After leaving the army, Myers set up a tattoo shop in Finksville, Maryland, just north of Baltimore, and prepared to live out the American dream of owning his own small business. Then by a complete fluke, he found himself talking to a doctor at a party one night, and that chat changed his life forever.
The doctor, Adam Vasner, was a surgeon who did breast reconstruction surgeries after mastectomies. He was interested in talking to tattoo artist Myers because in his work he was called upon to tattoo himself. The problem was, he knew he was not very good at it.
As he explained to Myers, when a woman has her breast removed in breast cancer surgery, all of it is removed — including the skin — for protection against any cancer cells that could be living on the inside of that tissue.
After the surrounding skin is stretched and implants are put in place, there is no nipple or areola; the reconstructed breast is featureless and smooth. When treatment is complete and the patient is healed, someone from the plastic surgeon’s team uses a tattoo needle in-office to make a circle on each breast in one of the colors chosen by the patient, usually either beige or salmon.
“So he asked if he could send some patients to me that he had tattooed because he figured that I could do it better than him. He wanted me to try and correct what had been done, see if I could make it look more real,” explains Myers.
“How I see it is as a portrait. If it is a portrait of a face or your dog or a nipple, it’s basically all the same.”
When the first few women came to him with two flat, round circles tattooed on their breasts, Vinnie did what he could do to make them look more natural. But when the first woman was sent to him as “a blank slate,” he says, “that was the start of something.”
With time, study and experience, Myers has created a technique of tattooing that not only recreates the shadowing and vascular component of a woman’s natural areola, but also creates the appearance of a 3-D nipple on the flat surface.
In the beginning it was just a tattoo challenge to Myers. He did not realize what it would mean to the women.
Time and time again, when the women turned around and looked in the mirror, they wept. It was the first time in years that they looked in a mirror and saw a “normal” woman looking back.
“Breast cancer circles are incredibly tight,” says Myers. “If it would have been anything else I don’t think word would have spread so quickly. But these women, they want to help each other and share everything they find.”
The need and desire for Myers’ talent became clear quickly. Within a few years he no longer had any open appointments for traditional tattoos, and today he books appointments about eight months out.
Although there are times when he misses the creativity of traditional tattooing, he can not compare it to the satisfaction of helping people become whole again.
Women come from all over the country to have Vinnie Myers tattoo them.
When he realized that most women coming into his shop would have never set foot inside a tattoo parlor if it had not been for the disease that left them disfigured, he wanted to make the environment more inviting for them.
His initial thought was to make it more clinical, like a doctor’s office, but the women implored him not to do that. “They told me that the last thing they wanted to see was another doctor’s office, so I did this” Myers says as he sweeps his arms out over a tastefully decorated office, complete with additional seating for those accompanying the survivor for support and a leather business chair for her to sit in while she is worked on.
The traditional tattoo artists that work in the shop have changed the way they dress and cut their hair and beards in order to make the women more comfortable when they come into the shop.
Little Vinnie’s Tattoo Shop does not work with medical insurance companies. One tattoo runs $400 and two, $600, but they will provide the medical forms with the procedure codes filled in to be submitted for reimbursement from insurance. Myers says that if the procedure is pre-approved, insurance will reimburse the entire cost.
Next on the horizon for Myers is a non-profit organization that will provide these tattoos to women who are poor or underserved.
Myers says that each year he tattoos about 20 women pro bono, but he would like to be able to bring his services to countries where there is virtually no reconstruction at all on women who have had mastectomies. “In Mexico and many African countries, there is no reconstruction,” says Myers. “If we could even put the tattoos on their flat chests, it would be something more than they will ever have.”
Someday Myers will find a talented enough apprentice to teach his secrets to, but at 51 years of age, he is not planning on retiring any time soon. In fact, he is continuing to expand, not cut back. In addition to planning the fundraising for the proposed nonprofit organization, he sees people who come to him for all types of human tissue tattoos.
“People have come to me to do work with clef lips and all sorts of stuff.” Myers explains. “A woman came in who didn’t have a bellybutton anymore because of stomach surgery. I made her a belly button,” he laughs. “We found a picture of Halle Bailey’s belly button and that’s what I put on her. It looked great. Looking close from the side you could tell it was only 2-D but straight on, walking down the beach in a bikini, no one would ever know.”
In addition to his tattoo shop, Vinnie Myers also works out of the Center for Reconstructive Breast Surgery in New Orleans, so that he can better serve women who are located in that part of the country.