Nipple tattoos and their Michelangelo
- 21 December 2013
- From the section Magazine
A tattooist in Baltimore has built up a huge customer base because of his unusual specialty - tattooing nipples on to women who have suffered from cancer and had their breasts removed.
There is something very familiar about the suburbs of small towns across America.
The roads are big and distances long, but sooner or later you are guaranteed to come across a strip mall - a little open air shopping complex along the side of a main road.
And so there I was, 20 minutes outside Baltimore, parked outside one of these strip malls.
This one had a 24-hour pharmacy as well as a veterinary surgery, a hairdresser's, a tanning shop and a tattoo parlour - Little Vinnie's Tattoos, to be precise, and it was Little Vinnie I had come to meet.
He was a friendly man dressed in a tweed waistcoat, a striped shirt and a smart felt hat. Vinnie shook our hands, welcomed us in and showed us around his business.
The walls were covered in tattoo art with catalogues lined up at the back of the room, packed with thousands of designs to choose from.
A classic heart with a dagger through the middle, perhaps? Or maybe your favourite cartoon character or - if you are feeling patriotic - you could choose from a bald eagle or the American flag.
A few customers were sitting on the benches, waiting to go in one of the six studios along the side of the wall, each with a black crushed velvet curtain for a door.
But one studio on the other side of the room stood out. It had more of a structure to it and a wooden door, much like an office or a doctor's surgery.
Rather appropriate really, because although Vinnie has no medical training, he has become a bit of a star in the medical world.
He no longer spends his day tattooing anchors on men's biceps. In fact, most of his clients are women and they have one thing in common, they are all recovering from breast cancer.
A few years ago, a doctor in Baltimore asked Vinnie to help out with a patient who had had breast reconstruction, leaving her with no nipples.
So realistic were his skills in creating 3D nipple tattoos, patients started demanding him over doctors who typically carry out basic tattoos as the final stage of reconstruction.
Now, he says, it has taken over his life. Vinnie sees up to 1,400 patients a year and travels across the country and beyond.
To prove it, there is a map in his studio with pins in it, showing where people come from - he has clients in countries as far away as Saudi Arabia, no mean feat in a part of the world where tattoos are considered haram, or forbidden.
When I was visiting, Sarah had just finished her appointment and was beaming.
Sarah is in her mid-30s and last year was devastated to find out she had cancer - just a few months after being told she was pregnant.
Within a month of giving birth to her son, she had to have an operation to remove both her breasts. She describes the first time she took off her bandages as the hardest day of her life.
"Every time you go and take a shower you see these scars that are a permanent reminder of what you just went through," she says.
But now she can smile.
"I have other tattoos but I never thought I would be getting my nipples done." It is certainly a conversation starter, she jokes.
A self-confessed bad boy who learned his trade while in the army, Vinnie says there are a million people who need this done, but just a handful of people doing it.
He was even asked to fly to the United Arab Emirates recently because there were about 20 women who wanted his tattoos - but only three of their husbands would give them permission, so he could not go.
Such is his reputation, he is affectionately nicknamed "the Michelangelo of nipple tattoos". But Vinnie plays down his talents - he says his work is not artistically challenging.
In fact, he got fed up a few years ago and decided to stop. He said enough was enough and he wanted to get back to regular tattoos.
But then one day a woman called him up to ask for an appointment. He said "No" and she sounded very upset.
Then out of the blue his sister called, telling him she had breast cancer too. It was a sign, he says, that he had to continue with this work.
"You lose the artistic satisfaction but then you gain this other satisfaction that is incredible," he says. "I was not prepared for how it was going to make me feel."
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