Blaze Starr stares seductively from an 8-x-10 autographed glossy in the corner of his “office,” as tattoo artist Vinnie Myers readies for his morning client. He lays out his tattoo machines, surveys possible pigments based on his client’s request, and opens a cabinet drawer to check on his stock of single-use sterilized, disposable needles (some for shading, some for lining) needed to get the job done.
Time was, there was nothing as inspiring as a virgin stretch of skin awaiting one of his “tat” tableaus: be it a pin-up-girl “sleeve,” an intricate crucifix running down an arm, a Technicolor butterfly spanning across a back, or a Chinese character delicately rendered on an ankle. But these days, Myers has narrowed the subject of his artistry to a single source of inspiration: nipples.
From Baltimore and Philadelphia to Saudi Arabia and Brazil, Myers, owner of Little Vinnies Tattoos—located along a busy stretch of Route 140 in Finksburg—has become internationally renowned for his 3-D-like nipple and areola tattoos for breast-cancer survivors (both women and men), who, most commonly, lose their nipples when the breast is removed during a mastectomy (and, despite reconstruction work, often are left with no nipples).
Twenty-one years ago, Myers was just another tattoo artist with talent. Then, in 2001, came a call from Lutherville-based plastic surgeon Adam Basner, who contacted Myers about the prospect of doing nipple tattoos for his reconstructive patients. Back then, Basner—like many plastic surgeons—was doing the tattoo work himself. “I quickly realized, I was pretty good at the surgery and not all that good at the tattoos,” recounts Basner. “It dawned on me, ‘Why not get someone who knows what they’re doing?’”
Similarly, Myers saw the potential after tattooing one of Basner’s patients. “I thought, ‘This could be something,’” says Myers, 50. “I thought there could a dramatic effect for these women.”
Ever since, Myers has done thousands of tattoos and works extensively with The Johns Hopkins Breast Center and The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery and St. Charles Surgical Hospital in New Orleans. Scott Sullivan, a plastic surgeon at The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery, who works with Myers, has the highest of praise. “He is the da Vinci of nipple tattoos,” says Sullivan. “His work is so fine, and so detailed. I haven’t seen anything like it before. His contribution to women who have had breast reconstruction is as important as anything we do as doctors.”
Lillie Shockney, a two-time breast-cancer survivor herself and administrative director of The Johns Hopkins Breast Center, found out about Myers from a patient nearly three years ago. “When I met her, she was trying to decide if she wanted nipple reconstruction or [tattoos],” recalls Shockney. “When I saw her several months later [post-surgery], I looked at her and said, ‘Oh, you decided to save your nipples and areola,’ and she said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘But I’m looking at them.’ And she said, ‘Vinnie.’ And I said, ‘What’s a Vinnie?’”
Shockney was so inspired by her patient’s outcome, she decided to pay a visit to Myers for professional reasons (to refer patients if she liked what she saw) and for a very personal one (to get tattooed). “When I looked in the mirror after he was done, my jaw dropped open,” she recalls.
These days, Shockney is a walking advertisement for Little Vinnies. “I take off my clothes [at Hopkins Breast Center] every day,” says Shockney. “I see women who are very distraught . . . you see that shattered look in their faces. I say, ‘Let me give you an idea of what we’re talking about. This is breast reconstruction. These are tattoos.’ . . . And they look at me like I’m a mirage. I show the patient what we can do to give her a Memorex version of what she’s lost—and how Vinnie achieves that.”
While any cancer is overwhelming, what breast-cancer survivors endure can seem Sisyphean—from the initial diagnosis, to the multitude of choices in treatment, to the reconstruction, which most often involves multiple surgeries. And while surviving is the first step, experts say, it’s the reconstruction work that can help the emotional healing. “To hear that you have breast cancer is devastating,” says Basner. “For women to also hear that they are going to be disfigured and lose a part of their femininity is a double whammy. Reconstruction becomes an important step in getting people to feel better.”
With more than 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States (according to the most recent figures in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there is no lack of clients for Myers, who is booked up to three months in advance and charges $400 for both unilateral and bilateral tattoos (most often covered by insurance).
One such client is Federal Hill-resident Debra Nelson, who was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) in August of 2009. Sitting in her home, Nelson tears up as she tells her story that includes multiple surgeries, a unilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, and a nipple graft. But even with the graft, Nelson was without an areola and the Montgomery glands that surround the nipple, so she decided to have Myers do a tattoo. Several days after her visit to Vinnies, Nelson caught her own reflection in a medicine-cabinet mirror. “The sun was coming in from behind,” Nelson recalls, “and I looked at myself and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m like normal.’” For Nelson, who says she “still grieves” the loss of her breast, Myers’s work has helped her heal. “Vinnie is an artist through and through,” she says. “He gives you everything he has as an artist and what he has in his heart.” And though Nelson never saw herself as the tattoo type, she was so inspired by Myers’s work she decided to get a Monarch butterfly tattoo as a symbol of her metamorphosis.
Early on, Myers knew that his art had the power to be transformative. “I definitely saw in the women a feeling of relief to be finished with the whole thing,” says Myers. “You get up every day, you look in the mirror, and you don’t have any nipples. The perfectly reconstructed breast is still not a breast [until it has] a nipple. It’s the finishing touch. It makes them feel whole again.”
If Myers sounds like an insider, that’s because he is. Several years ago, when his younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, it gave Myers a new outlook on his work. “It just struck very close to home,” says Myers. “By that time, I was already so busy with this, I made my decision to just do nipple tattoos. I’m not dealing with the radiation and the mastectomy and the healing and the scars and the wounds. I’m the last person they are going to see in this whole thing. It’s great to be that guy.”
Because it is the end of a journey that can sometimes play out over the course of many years, for many survivors, a visit to Little Vinnies is a pilgrimage of sorts. “It’s the crowning jewel to the process,” says Richie France, Little Vinnies receptionist. “Most of the women have a pretty good outlook on life by the time they get to us because they beat cancer. This is the last step in their process of healing, and they are pretty excited about it.”
Annette, who didn’t want her last name used, and her husband, Bill, just flew from South Florida to see Myers. Annette (one of approximately 15 clients Myers will see this week) is a petite 49-year-old who was diagnosed with DCIS in December 2010, had a bilateral mastectomy on January 22, 2011 (“You never forget the date,” she says), and subsequent reconstructive surgery, including a failed nipple reconstruction. “There are two things in life I always said I would never do,” says Annette, laughing. “One was get implants and the second was get a tattoo. You know the old saying, ‘Never say never. . . . ’”
While Annette was thrilled to have a clean bill of health and an excellent reconstructive result, she was unhappy with the tattoo work performed by her plastic surgeon. “My doctor was a great plastic surgeon,” she says, “but I was less happy with the nipple part of it.”
Through a “care coach” at South Florida Baptist Hospital, Annette learned about Myers. “I saw his website,” she says, “and I thought, ‘I’m just going to go for this.’” After her initial conversation with Myers, Annette and Bill shared some laughs. “Over the phone, I remember [Myers] said to me, ‘Can you take a picture of your breasts in natural light and then e-mail them to me?’” she recalls. “My husband was like, ‘A picture? Natural light? The Internet? Hmm. . . .’”
Now, standing amidst a profusion of pink ribbons and a book called Anatomy for the Artist, Annette’s concerns are allayed. Recounts Myers, “A while ago, a lady came in and was really nervous. She said, ‘I don’t need that skull staring at me,’ so I re-did my office and added the breast-cancer awareness stuff, but I also wanted to keep it a little bit edgy. I didn’t want it to be too soft, and I didn’t want it to be too clinical. It’s a tattoo shop.”
After giving Myers her medical history, Annette unbuttons her blouse. “Here we go,” she says, sighing deeply.
Myers looks at Annette’s already extant tattoos, which he concurs, have too many orange tones. “My main concern is that you are going to have to go darker or the colors that are there are going to come through,” he says.
In his stylish porkpie hat, crisp button-down shirt, and suede shoes, Myers hardly fits the stereotype of a tattoo artist. “I started dressing like this all the time when I started doing breast-cancer tattoos,” he says. “You don’t want to come in looking like a slouch.”
But he does, in fact, have a trail of tattoos that runs up his arms, down his legs, and across his back that most clients don’t see. “My wife and I have an agreement that until our kids are out of school, I wouldn’t tattoo my forearms,” says the father of four.
Growing up as one of six in the Woodlawn area of Baltimore, Myers admits that when it came to academics, he was a bit of a laggard. “I wasn’t very good in school,” he says, “but I always had an affinity for art and drew a lot of tattoo-style art.”
After graduating from Milford Mill High School in 1980, Myers became a medic in the Army. While stationed in South Korea, he got his first taste of tattoos. “One of my roommates was extensively tattooed,” recalls Myers. “I drew a set of Harley[-Davidson] wings on his forearm with magic markers and showed him some of my art, and he was like, ‘Dude, you should become a tattoo artist.’ We set up some primitive tattoo equipment that was homemade, and I started tattooing.”
Back in Baltimore after his tour of duty, Myers took up tattooing. In 1991, he opened Little Vinnies along Main Street in Westminster (before moving to Finksburg eight years later), and he learned on the job. “Back then, you couldn’t get an apprenticeship with anyone,” says Myers. “They weren’t giving out secrets. At the time, the industry was just coming into its own.”
As part of his education, Myers traveled all over the world—the South Pacific, Europe, Central America—to attend tattoo conventions and joined an upper-echelon of artists, including Leo Zulueta (known as “the father of the modern tribal tattoo”) and Ed Hardy (a tattoo artist whose designs are now used on clothing), who is a friend. Along the way, Myers’s claim to fame was his reinvention of traditional “flash designs” (designs printed on paper for mass production, often exhibited in street shops). “There were people doing custom design at the time,” says Myers, “but very few were doing their own version of flash design. It was a modern design on the old-school stuff. It could be a flag or an eagle, but with more of a twist and not as simple as American designs. Tattooing became more artistic. We were able to push the envelope of what could be done.”
As he revises Annette’s tattoo, Myers approaches his work like a Renaissance master. The challenge, in this case, is to blend the color and conceal the scarring. “It’s just Illustration 101,” says Myers, who also does illustration work for Under Armour. “With highlight and shadows, you just have to make it look real. That’s the name of the game. I can’t understand why no one gave it an effort to look real in the past. You don’t just do a bunch of dots and hope that it looks like a nipple.”
An hour or so (and seven pigments) later, Myers’s work is done, and Annette is beaming. “I’m thrilled,” she says. And while his clients are the ones visibly transformed by his work, Myers has evolved as well. “At one point, I remember saying, I didn’t know if tattooing would be the career for me forever. I didn’t know what the mission was for me, but when this came about, it made me think that this was the reason why it came together the way that it did.” As Annette gazes from her reflection in the mirror to Myers, she can’t contain her excitement. “I love you,” says Annette, now giddy with glee. “I hate to say it,” says her husband, Bill. “But I think he gets that a lot.”