Stepping inside the strip-mall storefront housing Little Vinnies Tattoos, you get the full-on tattoo parlor experience: a line of curtained booths where the skin artists set up, electric needles buzzing away; panels of colorful and frequently profane flash-sample tattoo art-everywhere; thrash metal shredding away over the sound system; the heavily tattooed, abundantly pierced, and bearded greeter/bouncer at the counter, counseling a freshly inked client on caring for her brand-new tats.
Only, the client in question is an older lady sporting a sweatshirt decorated with kittens and a tight, white-poodle permed hairdo. She appears a tad nonplussed at finding herself in this raucous environment but listens intently nevertheless: In addition to skin-care tips, she's also getting advice on how to file a reimbursement claim with her medical insurer. She's just finished a session with Vinnie Myers, aka Little Vinnie, the Michelangelo of nipple tattoos.
Although a new-school tattoo artist of some renown, these days Myers is exclusively doing nipple work, or the fine and sensitive art of recreating the appearance of areolae and nipples for women who have lost one or both breasts to cancer. He calls them "areola portraits"-as in, "You're not just doing a circle with a dot in the center, you're creating a real-life portrait of what used to be there." His trompe l'oeil, incredibly lifelike, and 3-D-looking nipples are regarded as the best in the world. Myers spends one week each month as the in-house nipple artist at the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery, the international center for state-of-the-art breast reconstruction.
Current statistics show that one in eight American women will confront breast cancer during their lives. Though many survive, the fight typically requires partial or total mastectomy. Though reconstructive surgery and implants can restore the outer shape of a lost breast, medical science has yet to invent an effective surgical technique for recreating the areola. Tattooing remains the current best option, and the service is offered by many reconstructive and plastic surgery practices. However, says Myers, these medical professionals charge thousands of dollars, and the results, he says, are "frequently unfortunate-usually they have a nurse in the back office doing it, and they're not particularly well-trained and certainly not good artists. And why would they be? They're nurses."
As a matter of fact, Myers first got started in the nipple biz back in 2001, doing corrective work for other practitioners' botched ink jobs before he decided to partner with a doctor in Towson, offering his services as a professional tattoo artist to do it right the first time. "These days, a few cosmetic tattoo artists, the permanent makeup people, do nipple tattoos," he says. "But the real tattoo artists don't want to get into this, so there are only a few in the nation who do it at all, and I'm the only one doing it exclusively." He also does it affordably: $400 for one breast, $600 for both, a little more than the price for any other tattoo of that size and complexity that comes out of his shop. Myers sees about 1,000 clients each year-some travel from overseas to this nondescript shopping strip outside of Westminster.
That's a lot of ta-tas. When asked how he feels about his status as Nippleangelo, the always-impeccably dressed Myers, whose taste runs to bespoke suits and natty hats, laughs. "It's great, really. You get the artistic satisfaction of regular tattoo work, but this other satisfaction you can never appreciate until you've done it. So many women I've worked on have thanked me afterward for helping them feel whole again," he says. "This is like the finish line for these ladies-by the time they get here, they've already been through so much and they are ready to be done. It's really almost a celebration. If you have to be someone in this whole cycle of breast-cancer treatment and recovery, this is the guy to be."
Myers grew up in Baltimore County, gives his age as "somewhere over 40," and graduated from Milford Mill High School before joining the Army. It was then that he taught himself tattooing, building his own DIY electric needle using the motor from a cassette recorder and practicing on his buddies. "From the time I was a young kid, I wanted to be a tattoo artist the way other kids want to be firemen or astronauts," he explains. "Only there wasn't, like, tattoo school, so I had to teach myself." Myers also loved to draw flash, the often-gaudy and irreverent sample tattoos printed on cardstock that decorate tattoo joints worldwide. "Back in the late '80s, there was only one maker of flash-Martin, I think?-so we started drawing our own designs," he says. Myers called his style "new school" and produced sheets of flash designs, which he sold at conventions to other tattoo artists. He traveled worldwide selling flash and giving tats, but the pace tired him out, and by 1991 he was ready to open his own shop in small-town Westminster. Myers is still a big fan of good ink and has traveled to Switzerland, Italy, and beyond to get tattoos from the artists he most admires, none of which are visible when he's dressed for work in a purple houndstooth shirt with sleeves rolled up, paired with a coordinating argyle tie and dress pants. "That's how I like it," he says. "That I can choose to display, or not."
It's time to meet with the next client. An elegantly dressed 50-something woman has driven in from Virginia with her best friend, who flew down from New York to be with her. Myers starts by taking a thoroughly professional medical history, beginning with her diagnosis and ending with a bilateral mastectomy in 2012. The talk turns to expanders and silicone: "How many cc's? Those look like 350s?" he asks, studying the scarred canvas the woman presents from beneath a draped sheet. She murmurs that he is correct.
Myers begins by sketching in sample areolae with a pink Sharpie, and a jokey but intense conversation about size and placement ensues. "We should start with a smaller circumference. Remember, you can always go bigger," he counsels. He chooses a palette of inks based on the woman's skin tone and gets to work. She has little sensation left after so many surgeries but cringes a bit anyway as the apparatus begins buzzing. Myers offers her vodka, which he keeps on hand, but she declines. "Can you do those little bumps on my areolas?" she asks.
"You mean the Montgomery glands? Sure thing, part of the package," Myers answers a bit absently, intent on his work. The session proceeds with astonishing rapidity as he first lays down pigment and then lightly sketches in shadows first, then highlights. Two nipples bloom under Myers' skilled hands, convincingly three-dimensional and lifelike. "It's a fricking miracle, man," breathes the best friend.
The topless woman studies herself in the mirror for a long time, turning from side to side, moving closer and then further from the glass. Finally, eyes moist, she cups her hands under her own breasts, turns to Myers and says quietly, "Thank you. Thank you."