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Tattoo artist gives nipples and 'relief' to breast cancer survivors

Friday - 6/6/2014, 6:24am  ET

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Tattoo artist Vinnie Myers mixes colors and uses shading to create realistic-looking nipples of breast cancer patients who have undergone breast reconstruction. (New York Times video screen shot)

WASHINGTON -- Most people who visit Vinnie Myers at his Finksburg, Maryland, tattoo shop aren't there to get a black-and-white skull or a colorful full sleeve. Myers' clients come to him for nipples.

Myers started tattooing nipples 13 years ago, when he teamed up with a Baltimore-based doctor to help the doctor fix nipples he'd given his reconstructive breast patients.

"The results were less than what he felt was adequate So I went down to his office and fixed the ones that he had started," Myers says. "The word slowly kind of got out. Next thing you know, it's all I'm doing."

The number of women who seek immediate reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy has increased from about 10 percent in the 1980s to 90 percent today, the Stony Brook School of Medicine reports. The final stage of breast reconstruction involves the nipple and areola.

Doctors can use tissue from a patient's body to rebuild the nipple; tattooing matches the color of the nipple and areola with the other breast.

For a while, this procedure was performed by breast surgeons who only had a few hours of tattoo training, The New York Times reports.

Now, more doctors are referring patients to tattoo artists who can create realistic-looking nipples and 3-D nipple tattoos for women who don't have their nipple and areola reconstructed.

Artists do this by mixing colors and using shading to mimic the details of a real nipple -- down to its imperfections.

"The tattooing procedure is not that much different," Myers says. "The approach is different in some regards, depending on the anatomy -- if the skin is very thin or radiated, the level of scarring that they have, or where the scars are located -- you have to use a slightly different technique for some of those things."

Myers does about 35 to 45 nipple tattoos a week, or seven or eight tattoos a day, six days a week. The New York Times reports that his waiting list is anywhere from four to six months and is full of women who come from all over to see him.

"The demand is always going to be there, unfortunately," Myers says.

To accommodate his nipple tattoo clients, Myers had to do some rearranging at Little Vinnie's Tattoos. In most tattoo shops, clients receive their tattoos out in the open. He knew that wouldn't work for women in these circumstances.

"Most of the women that come here would probably never have been in a tattoo shop in their life, so it can be a little difficult for them," he says.

Myers built a few rooms in the shop that are "not quite as edgy as some tattoo offices might be." However, they don't completely lack personality.

"We didn't want to make it clinical. They've seen enough doctor's offices and hospitals throughout their years of being reconstructed and treated. But we did want to tone down some of the things that we say, and you know, dress a little nicer -- just have the whole shop be a little more presentable."

Myers, who started working with the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans in 2003, a place he calls the "A-team for breast reconstruction," says only a handful of tattoo artists in the country do nipple tattoos on a full-time or regular basis.

The New York Times says that when Myers' 19-year-old daughter graduates college in 2017, she will learn nipple tattooing from her father.

Myers says the best part is the reactions from his customers.

"By the time they see me, they've been through so much, and this is the final step. So once they leave here, they're finished with the whole breast cancer journey," he says. "You do get to see that happiness and that joy that the women have, knowing that their journey is over."

Watch "The Nipple Artist," featuring Vinnie Myers, from The New York Times:

h/t: The New York Times

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