Thursday, Oct. 4, was just another day at Little Vinnie’s Tattoos, but for those who traveled from other parts of the country for their appointments that day in Carroll County, it was life-changing.
Around 12:30 p.m. Shelley Allen, 65, came out of the room where shop owner Vinnie Myers had just tattooed new nipples on both her breasts, marking the end of her battle with ductal carcinoma in situ, a type of breast cancer.
Allen traveled to Maryland from Branford, Connecticut, with her husband on Oct. 3, and stayed at a hotel in Owings Mills so she could be well-rested for her 10 a.m. appointment the next day.
“[My] doctor’s office did their own tattooing, but everybody said to come here,” she said, sitting on a leather couch in the center of the shop. “They get people from all over. It’s pretty impressive; I didn’t even know anybody like this existed.”
The Vinnie Myers Team — separate from the shop, which offers more traditional tattoos — specializes in three-dimensional nipple and areola tattoos, and is made up Myers himself, his daughter Anna Myers, and fellow tattoo artist Paul Bassette.
People come from all over the world to get Myers’ nipple tattoos, as he has been offering the niche service for the past 16 years.
And he’s got a map on the wall covered in push pins — clients from across the United States and as far as Australia, Russia and South Africa — to prove it.
He also gets recommendations from hospitals across the country. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York instructed Allen to take the trip to Finksburg, and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore regularly sends its patients to the Vinnie Myers Team.
“You have to do your homework, do the research into [nipple tattoo artists],” Myers said. “If you have a bad one, you're either going to live with a bad one or come to us to fix it. Don’t just go to somebody, let them start poking with pins, because the result could be horrible and it could really damage the reconstruction.”
But whether he tattoos a brand new nipple, or corrects a nipple tattoo gone wrong, the renowned artist said his favorite part of offering the service is the women’s reaction when it’s done.
“They know their whole journey’s over,” he said. “They don’t have to deal with cancer anymore, not be reminded of it every time they look in the mirror, they get out of the shower, they’re at the gym or in the pool — or even just something like taking your shirt off in front of your young daughter and not having to be reminded you don't have nipples.”
Sometimes there are tears, he said. Sometimes there are hugs.
When Allen and her husband said their goodbyes they gave hugs and left. Then Myers took a quick break before his next appointment.
Randa Garlin, 29, drove 17 hours from Batesville, Arkansas, with her husband Brandon.
“My grandmother was diagnosed early,” Garlin said after she filled out her intake paperwork, “she died at 37 from breast cancer. My mother had a mastectomy at 18 when she got breast cancer.”
She also had a cousin who was diagnosed with the disease in her 20s and lost her battle with it at 32 years old.
Concerned with her own health and family, Garlin got tested for the breast cancer susceptibility gene two years ago — and found out there was a 95 percent chance she would have cancer by the time she turned 35.
“With three kids at the time, I couldn’t live with the thoughts of not being with them,” she said. “We scheduled the mastectomy right after. I did the testing in January of 2016 and had my mastectomy in May.”
She had reconstruction surgery and implants afterward, but when her doctors attempted to do a nipple reconstruction surgery, it failed.
Then she found all the raves about the Vinnie Myers Team in Maryland.
“I’ve seen a video on Fox or CNN,” said Garlin, “but there’s an account, a Facebook page for people who’d had prophylactic mastectomies. And I did more research and found out how popular he was.
“Everyone said, ‘Why are you going that far?’ ” she said. “But people come from all over the world for him to do it.”
So Garlin decided to make a trip out of it. With her and her husband’s five-year anniversary coming up, they decided to visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore the day before her appointment and go to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the way home.
After her tattooing was done, she looked in the mirror in disbelief before receiving her care instructions.
Then the couple posed in front of the map at the shop’s entrance to mark the end of their journey.
Myers said even though he exclusively does nipple tattoos these days, he’s got some other ideas in the works.
“We’re starting to do some other things,” he said, “working with Johns Hopkins Hospital for people with gender reassignments, battlefield injuries, phalloplasties, people who lose the end of their finger — tattoo a finger nail on there — things that people never thought about in the medical industry before.
“The tattoo world was never in tune with the rest of society as it is today,” Myers said. “People are more open to talking to a tattoo artist. … They were on the fringe and now they’re on the mainstream, so it’s opening the door up to other possibilities and other trains of thought.”
Other opportunities, Myers said, include helping people with port wine stains, vitiligo and hyperpigmentation after surgeries and wounds.
“We’re starting to tattoo these things to give them better quality of life,” he said, “and it’s opened the door to a lot more possibilities to help a lot of other people besides just breast cancer patients.”