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Value Added: The cancer survivor’s tattoo artist

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I am drawn to tattoo artist Vinnie Myers for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that my mother was a breast cancer survivor who went on to live a full, productive 93-year life.

You may wonder: What does a tattoo artist have to do with breast cancer?

Myers has helped pioneer a lucrative and satisfying niche tattooing images of nipples and areolas on women who have undergone surgery for breast cancer. He helps rebuild psyches as well as bodies, providing closure to women who have weathered a long, exhausting ordeal and are looking to move on with their lives.

Unlike medical tattoos that often do not reproduce the skin’s texture and color variations, Myers’s use a trompe l’oeil technique that creates the optical illusion of three dimensions.

His detailed and realistic imagery comes from using the full technical and creative arsenal of a highly experienced tattoo artist. The process can take several hours. Women come from Saudi Arabia, Europe and across North America — he has many customers in the Washington area — to be tattooed by the “micropigmentation specialist,” as Myers is technically known.

“I am the last step,” the 49-year-old artist said. “They have all had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. It’s been a long, uphill battle for them.”

Board-certified plastic surgeon Marga F. Massey says she put away her own tattoo needles when she saw Myers’s work.

“He does beautiful work,” said Massey, a breast-reconstruction specialist who has offices in Chicago, Salt Lake City, Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans. “It’s fascinating to see how the women react when he tattoos the color back on their breast. They feel whole.”

Myers estimates he has drawn 2,000 to 3,000 breast tattoos in the past 10 years, charging $350 to $1,000 per session, depending on the client’s needs. He averages 30 to 40 patients per month and earns between $200,000 and $300,000 a year on the practice. He makes about $100,000 or so from his regular tattoo business, which includes ownership of two parlors in the Baltimore area.

His home office, Little Vinnies Tattoos, is in Finksburg, northwest of Baltimore, but he travels to the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans for three to five days a month. He also handles patients at the Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pa., and at Massey’s office in Charleston.

He loves it.

“I roll in with a briefcase wearing a Canali or Armani suit, looking professional, speaking professionally. It’s a nice twist to the dreary tattoo shop.”

The entrepreneur wants to take his business to the next level by offering courses to teach his craft to doctors and nurses around the world. It has the potential to multiply his revenue many times over.

“I could help them generate a better product, help increase their bottom line and at the same time, increase my bottom line and help myself.”

The Baltimore native is a self-taught artist who has been painting and sketching all his life. He was turned on to tattooing when a high school classmate showed him a detailed eagle on his arm. “It was so impressive to me, the way the lines and color were done,” Myers said.

He used felt-tip markers to sketch roosters, eagles and other Americana images on high school friends. Myers continued the sideline — still using markers — after joining the Army in 1981, where a fellow soldier encouraged him to take it up full time.

He learned tattooing by hanging around parlors near military bases and during a lengthy stay in Hawaii, where he visited beaches with his tattoo machine.

He eventually quit his job as an eye technician in Baltimore and struck out on his own, setting up Little Vinnies Tattoos in 1991. It was funded with $5,000 from wedding gifts. He leased a tiny, second-floor office behind a Westminster strip mall, getting a break on rent from a buddy who owned the location.

The time was right. The insular and tight-lipped tattoo industry, which had long been catering primarily to service members and bikers, was about to go mainstream, as young artists like Myers sought to take it to a higher artistic level. “I was doing portraits of people, realistic pictures of animals. . . . It was different than what people had seen or had been used to.”

He plastered fliers and business cards at local colleges. He attended industry conventions, renting a tattooing booth and winning awards. He started appearing in industry magazines, which generated more customers.

The business of tattoo art is measured in hours, with the current standard price at $150 an hour. A basic image takes about 90 minutes to draw; a large tattoo on someone’s back can take 100 hours and cost thousands of dollars. Several of Myers’s customers are covered in “body suits,” which extend from the collar area to the ankles and can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Revenue has never been an issue for the resourceful entrepreneur, thanks to diversification. He was a first mover on lucrative “flash sheets,” illustrations that tattoo artists can copy onto customers. He designed his own and traveled the world — Berlin, Amsterdam, Japan and Samoa — tattooing and selling flash sheets.

When the flash sheet income disappeared because of bootlegging, he found other revenue sources, such as creating original T-shirt images. He earned $20,000 a year in royalties for his designs. He also sells paintings and illustrations at fishing tournaments on the East Coast and in Hawaii. When piercing became hot, he made money on that, too.

Myers has no employees other than himself, his wife and a brother-in-law who runs a second store on the western edge of Baltimore. His overhead is his insurance, lease, supplies and tattoo machines, which cost $300 to $500 apiece. He has a couple of dozen machines for various uses, from thickness of lines to darkness of shading to colors of ink.

The breast tattooing began about 10 years ago, when a plastic surgeon who had heard about Myers asked if he could fix a breast-reconstruction patient’s unsatisfactory tattoo.

“His nurses were doing it, and it didn’t work out very well,” Myers said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew if it could be tattooed, I could do it.”

The customer was happy, and the physician set up space in his office for Myers to handle patients. When Vogue magazine included him in a 2008 story about life after breast cancer, it picked up even more.

“I knew it had potential, because it was something that had been overlooked,” Myers said. The real payoff, he added, is emotional.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to help these ladies get to the end of that battle.”

For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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