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FINKSBURG, Md. — A Finksburg tattoo parlor has become a mecca for an unlikely crowd: breast-cancer survivors.

Little Vinnie’s Tattoos offers designs ranging from swordfish and skulls to intricate Japanese-style art. But women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer do not typically come for traditional ink. They flock to the shop seeking one thing: a realistic nipple tattoo from the shop owner, Vinnie Myers.

“Nobody really talks about the areola and nipple area, but it’s so important,” says Kimberly Winters, 44, a human-resources benefits administrator from Wooster, Ohio, who had a mastectomy and reconstruction of her left breast two years ago. This spring Winters traveled nearly 400 miles to Finksburg seeking a nipple tattoo from Myers.

Word of his skill at creating a three-dimensional effect has spread among women who have had a breast removed because of cancer. More than 5,000 women have traveled from as far away as India to have their reconstructed breasts tattooed by Myers.

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After a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, the new breast is a blank canvas. While the operation can re-create the size and shape of the patient’s original breast by using her body tissue or implants, the darker, sensitive skin of the nipple and areola is usually removed entirely.

Skin grafts can re-create the look of the original nipple, but the procedure isn’t popular because “most patients don’t want to have another surgery and another scar,” says Dr. Leo Keegan, an assistant clinical professor of surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan.

Surgeons doing tattoos

Instead, many doctors and patients choose a tattooed rendition of a nipple. In most cases, the procedure is performed by a breast surgeon with only a few hours of tattoo training. The result is usually a passing resemblance to the real thing: a one-dimensional, reddish, pink or brown circle inked onto the tip of the breast.

Myers originally specialized in colorful, one-of-a-kind tattoos. But at a party in 2001, he struck up a conversation with a woman who worked with a plastic surgeon.

“She told me they were having problems tattooing their breast-cancer patients and asked me if I would come in and help correct some of them,” Myers said.

After doing a few jobs, he quickly recognized the need for trained tattoo artists to be involved in breast reconstructions.

“I would never advise anybody to come to me for surgery, but in the same vein, nobody should go to a surgeon for a tattoo,” he said.

As Myers developed his technique, word spread and his business grew, giving him little time for other tattoos. Myers said that in 2010, he decided to stop doing nipple tattoos.

“The morning that I planned on telling the guys to stop taking appointments for them, my sister called to tell me she had breast cancer,” he recalled.

He took it as a sign. Today, he is busier than ever, with a waiting list of four to six months. He has recruited his daughter, Anna, 19, to help with his business. When she graduates with an art degree from Towson University in 2017, she plans to learn nipple tattooing from her father.

“I get to see tattoos done by different doctors from all over the world, and it never ceases to amaze me how bad most of them are,” Myers said. “Doctors have really dropped the ball on this.”

First-person experience

I recently decided to make my own trip to Little Vinnie’s. After two years of breast-cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and four additional surgeries, I also wanted to have breasts that at least appeared normal and had the most realistic-looking nipples possible. After talking to my doctor, I made the four-hour drive from my home in New York to the tattoo shop in Finksburg.

Inside Little Vinnie’s, Myers had me stand in front of a mirror as he drew — freehand — the outline of my tattooed areola. As he pulled pigments from his inventory — Kelly green, dark purple, pink and black — he saw the terrified look on my face. He explained that he would combine certain colors to complement the undertones of my pale skin. Mixed together, they would form a natural-looking nipple color.

He dipped his finger into the ink and streaked it along my chest. I wanted it lighter, more pink. He added three drops of white and then tested the color again. Perfect. The machine began to buzz and in less than an hour, my tattoos were done. As I looked in the mirror, I was shocked by how real my nipples appeared. The pale pink hue was perfect, and the shading mimicked the imperfections of a natural nipple.

Myers charges $600 to $800 for his nipple tattoos. Some insurance companies reimburse patients, while some, including mine, refuse to pay because Myers is not a licensed health-care provider.

Winters, who is African-American, traveled to Little Vinnie’s to correct a peach-color tattoo that didn’t match her skin. “It looked like the areola of a white woman,” she said.

Myers created a nipple with subtle brown shading and a three-dimensional effect to match the natural nipple on Winters’ other breast.

“He created the illusion of a real nipple and areola,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

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