Breast Cancer Survivors Find the Michelangelo of Nipple Tattoos
In the waiting room of Little Vinnie’s Tattoos, bikers and punks sit side by side with church-going grandmas and soccer moms. Customers fly in from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Brazil, to an unassuming strip mall just outside of Baltimore complete with tanning salon, liquor store, and adult DVDs. Anxiously, they enter Vinnie Myers's shop, the final destination for many breast-cancer survivors attempting to recover what mastectomies have stolen.
Breast-cancer rates have risen in recent decades, and that increase has been especially pronounced in the United States. Currently, one in eight American women will confront the disease in their lifetime. Over the same period of time mortality rates from the disease have declined. For many, treatment will necessitate breast and areola removal. Patients survive the mauling with flat chests bound in dark scars. Most opt for reconstructive surgery. Breast implants can provide the shape of what was lost, but making a realistic-looking areola is a greater challenge.
For all of medicine’s advances, the best option for areola reconstruction is tattooing, and in the field of cosmetic tattooing, Vinnie’s trompe-l’oeil “areola portraits,” as he calls them, are widely regarded as the best that money can buy.
“We’ve tricked doctors,” Vinnie’s jocose assistant Richie chimed in. “There’s been ladies that have called us all giddy and giggly, ‘You’ll never believe what happened!’ they say. ‘I went to my follow-up appointment with my surgeon and I disrobe and he’s looking through my chart and he’s looking at me real confused and he finally says, ‘I think we made a mistake. This chart says you were operated on.’"
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
“It’s just Art 101,” Vinnie replied, leaning up against the parlor’s pool table. “Light and shadow. It’s hard for me to believe that nobody else ever thought about this before. You know a lot of the other cosmetic tattoo artists, they just hold up a circle template and color it in. They’ve got three colors. They’ve got chocolate brown, bubble gum pink, and salmon. Whichever one you’re closest to, that’s what you get. Most of the white women get salmon.”
“So they don’t draw in the Montgomery glands?” I asked referring to the little bumps of the areola.
“They don’t even draw in the nipple most of the time,” Vinnie exclaimed. “They’ll do a circle and then they’ll maybe do a darker colored circle. Maybe. You’ll get a chocolate-colored circle inside of a salmon circle.”
“And most of the time they can’t even get the nipples in the right spot,” Richie lamented. “You almost wonder if they just close their eyes and point…”
“Exactly,” confirmed Vinnie. “To me, that’s absolutely criminal.”
Another aspect that Vinnie finds criminal is the typical doctor’s fee for cosmetic tattoo work. “It’s easily a couple thousand bucks,” he notes, “and insurance doesn’t cover it. Here, we charge the same amount for an areola as we charge for any other tattoo of the same size. Why should we charge more just because it’s a nipple?” At Little Vinnie’s, the price is $400 for one breast or $600 for both.
I sat in on several of Vinnie’s sessions that day. With his quiet confidence, his medical terminology, his clipboard, and his collared shirt, it was easy to see why so many of his clients called him doctor. He took such thorough medical histories that I half expected him to pull out a stethoscope. If he had, I doubt anybody would have even raised an eyebrow.
The last client of the day was a woman in her early 50s—a former head cheerleader, her husband proudly boasted. Her battle with cancer had lasted two years and had left her with a thick purple line where her left breast used to be.
She was nervous. Vinnie offered to fetch her a beer. “It’s OK,” he joked, “we’re all drunk over here!”
“What does it mean to you to have this procedure?” I asked the woman.
She thought for a moment, composing her words. “I’m hoping it will eliminate the constant reminder. For a while you’re just in survival mode. You just take it one procedure at a time, one diagnosis at time. And then after it’s all over, you have the sense that everything’s great—until you’re by yourself, and that’s the hardest part. Sometimes I’m great, and then when I get out of the shower, it all comes back—kinda like a kick in the gut. Hopefully this’ll just help erase some of the memories.”
“The good thing,” said Vinnie gesturing towards the surgical site, “is that when you look at this now, you only see the scars. There’s no other features to look at. But when you have the nipple there, you don’t notice the scars as much. You focus your attention on the nipple itself.”
“The way you describe it,” I posed to the woman, “It seems almost like a spiritual procedure—changing the body to change the mind…”
“You feel like it takes your feminine side away,” the woman elaborated, “And it’s odd because all the time women try to hide their nipples, and then when it disappears, you think, Why did I hide it? Why did I work so hard to hide it?"
“It’s strange,” began Vinnie as he mixed the pigments, “how almost every woman I’ve talked to has that same feeling of not being complete, not really being whole. You felt whole before and now you’re not. What I’ve heard more than anything else when I finish this procedure is ‘I feel whole again.’”
Vinnie donned his black latex gloves.
“Like a biker man!” the woman laughed.
“We gotta be edgy!” Vinnie riffed.
The tattoo machine buzzed and shook in his hand like something alive and spiteful. The woman winced and her lips disappeared as the needle bit in.
When it was over, 20 minutes later, Vinnie slowly spun the woman in her chair to face a full-length mirror.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Her face tightened and she dabbed at her eye. The answer took a moment to work its way out. “I don’t see the scar anymore,” she stammered. “It really just disappeared.”
Roc’s new book, And, was released last year. You can find more information on his website.
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