Tattoo artist Vinnie Myers, making breast cancer survivors whole again

He is not a surgeon but Vinnie Myers' talents are a vital part of breast reconstruction surgery after cancer treatment. Photo: Photo used by permission of Vinnie Myers

WASHINGTON, October 25, 2013 — The mention of his name can make grown women smile and blush like school girls. Women whisper slyly into each other’s ears about their visit to see him. Women who get an appointment with him cannot help but feel a little bit special and ritualistically cross the days off the calendar until they will see him.

Two women, who would aptly be described as “little old ladies,” reacted the way so many women feel like reacting when they recently ran into him at a conference. They could not control their excitement; as they grasped onto each other 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 series of life events he has found himself as one of the most critically important and highly regarded technicians in breast cancer reconstruction today.

Myers is a self taught tattoo artist who picked up the trade while in the Army to make some extra money.

Upon leaving the Army, Myers set up a tattoo shop in Finksville, Maryland just north of Baltimore and prepared himself to live out the American dream of owning his own small business. Then, on a complete fluke, he found himself talking to a doctor at a party one night and his life changed forever.

Surgeon Adam Vasner was interested in talking to tattoo artist Vinnie Myers because as a surgeon who did breast reconstruction after mastectomies, Dr. Vasner was called upon to do tattoos. The problem was, Vasner 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 inside that tissue.

Vinnie Myers

After the skin is stretched and the implants are put in place, there is still no nipple or areola. When treatment is complete and the patient is healed, someone from the plastic surgeons team uses an in office tattoo needle to make a circle on each breast out of one of the two or three color choices chosen from 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,” explained 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.”

The first few women came to him with two flat round circles on their chest, 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,” then as he explains “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.

Click here to see some of Vinnie’s work. Warning, it does show reconstructed breasts.

In the beginning it was only 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 when they looked in a mirror and saw a “normal” woman looking back.

“Breast cancer circles are incredible 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 is booking 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 stepped 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 being worked on.

Little Vinnies Tattoo shop

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. One tattoo will run $400; two are $600. But the shop will provide the medical forms with the procedure codes filled out 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 Vinnie Myers is a nonprofit organization in order to provide these tattoos to women who are poor or underserved.

Myers says that each year he tattoos about 20 women pro bono but 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 age 51 he is not planning on retiring any time soon. He continues to expand, not cut back. In addition to the fundraising planning for the proposed nonprofit organization, people are now coming to him for all types of human tissue tattoos.

“People have come to me to do work with cleft lips and all sorts of stuff.” Myers explained. “A woman came in who didn’t have a bellybutton anymore because of stomach surgery. I made her a belly button,” he laughed. “We found a picture of Halle Berry’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.”

Vinnie Myers also works out of the Center for Reconstructive Breast Surgery in New Orleans at its invitation, where he can better serve women located in the South and Midwest.

 


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.

 

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