Breast reconstruction has come a long way in the past decade, but creating a realistic-looking nipple in the operating room remains a challenge. Enter Vinnie Myers, a tattoo artist who now specializes exclusively in nipples. After more than a decade of honing his technique, he now sees up to 1,500 women a year.
Fast Company: How did you arrive at this specialty?
VM: I was a tattoo artist near Baltimore. I was at my doctor, and he and his staff had attempted to do a dozen or so tattoos on women who had had breast reconstruction. They were all really bad, and he asked me to fix them. I realized it could be something big because every woman who ever had a tattoo done at a doctor’s office or hospital was going to have a similar result, which equated to millions of women.
Your tattoos have a very realistic, 3-D look. How do you pull that off?
It’s art 101. Shadowing, highlights, the little things that make something look real to the eye: Shadowing the nipple itself and highlighting and shadowing each one of the Montgomery glands, using different approaches to make a natural-looking areola, like muted or mottled edges.
How has your technique evolved?
Really, tattooing hasn’t changed that much in the past 100 years. But the type of breast reconstruction makes a huge difference. If you’re just stretching the skin over an implant it makes it very difficult. If you approach it like a regular tattoo, and the skin is 2 millimeters thick, you can do a lot of damage. The skin can be very compromised, especially when throwing radiation into the mix. New flap surgeries, with fat replacement and things like that, not only make my job easier but have a much better result for the women.
How did you decide to stop doing other kinds of tattoos and focus strictly on this?
By about 2010, I had been doing [nipple tattoos] for eight years, and my sister called me and told me she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I realized, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and I focused all my attention on it. She’s coming up on five years of being cancer-free–a big landmark. In 2011, I was asked by the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery to come work with them. They said, “Look, we’re trying to compile the A-team of breast reconstruction, a one-stop shop that offers the best of the best, and we’d like you to be part of that team.”
Why are nipple tattoos important to the women who opt for them?
If you look at someone who doesn’t have eyebrows, something doesn’t look right. You’ve heard of “Barbie boobs?” Breasts just don’t look like breasts without a nipple. Once women have them, it makes a tremendous difference–looking in the mirror every day and having some semblance of normalcy. The number one thing I hear is, “Wow, you made me whole again.”
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
The number one thing that surprises people is that they don’t even know nipple tattooing is being done. It’s funny when you’re on an airplane and someone asks you what you do for a living–usually people react with surprise and interest.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
I used to draw and illustrate, doing big game and fish illustrations; lately, I’ve been doing aerial drone photography. We’ve got a trip coming up to go out west and do photos in the desert and in the parks that allow you to fly drones–national parks don’t, anymore. I’m going to try to get some photos on reservation land, and aerial photography of wetlands.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
The doctors and plastic surgeons who are focusing on making the breast really look like a breast, the people who try to make these women look beautiful to themselves–those people inspire me incredibly.