Philadelphia-based tattoo artist Vinnie Myers only inks one kind of tattoo these days. Seeing at least three clients per day, Myers keeps busy tattooing incredibly life-like nipples on post-mastectomy patients’ breasts. Often, surgery to remove cancerous breast tissue leaves women without nipples, which can understandably lead to feelings of lost femininity, diminished sexuality and lowered body confidence. Enter Myers’ specialized tattoo skill set.
In the early 2000s, an area plastic surgeon contacted Myers to ask whether he would see breast reconstruction patients for nipple tattoos, but as Myers familiarized himself with that medical-related corner of the tattoo market, he found the options lacking for women. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012:
“The industry standard has always been draw a circle where the nipple should be and color it in,” Vinnie said. “When I first started doing it, I said to myself: ”Why should I do a tattoo of a nipple and make it look like a pepperoni, when I can make it look like a nipple?’ “
Because of the physical and emotional trauma associated with mastectomies, attaining realistic-looking nipples tends to be the last step, sometimes postponed for years as women recover, or never gone through with at all. And while getting a tattoo of a nipple might sound like a poor substitute for the real thing, the physical nipple replacements that doctors can provide often aren’t aesthetically pleasing, mismatch the skin tone, or even fall off. As word of Myers’ masterful work has spread, around 2,000 “breast cancer warriors,” as he calls them, head to his Philadelphia studio to get inked each year. As a result of his close attention to light, skin tone and anatomical detail, his tattoos appear astonishingly three-dimensional (Inked Magazine offers an example of his work, but warning that it features bare breasts).
Not all breast cancer survivors care to have their breasts reconstructed, though some still head to the tattoo parlor. In January 2013, Freshly Inked magazine featured a stunning chestplate tattoo (pictured above) that completely covers scars from Inga Duncan Thornell’s bilateral mastectomy. And speaking of mastectomy after care, mother-daughter team has petitioned Victoria’s Secret to begin manufacturing “survivor bras” specially designed for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery. Allana Maiden who started the Change.org petition on behalf of her mom who survived breast cancer explains the need for survivor bras and also echoes the importance of seemingly small details like nipple tattoos:
Many women who undergo mastectomy surgery because of breast cancer suffer from body image issues…There are so many women out there, like my mom, who have survived breast cancer but are left feeling altered and uncomfortable because of undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. I think they deserve to feel beautiful…
According to the American Cancer Society, 292, 000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.