Photos by Brooke Hall
*The names in this story have been altered to protect those photographed.
Tricia Thompson, President and Founder of a successful local company, has been waiting since the beginning of July to get her nipples back.
After confronting her diagnosis of Stage 2, Grade 3 aggressive Breast Cancer in late October of 2012, Tricia is ready to be on the other side of her journey, with reconstructed breasts, finally free of cancer. But being breast cancer free does not mean the effects of cancer are gone, especially for women who deal with such trauma like Tricia.
“It’s like a little club you join when you get breast cancer,” she remembers. “You can talk to everybody and anybody about it, but the only people who really understand have been through it, because it’s emotional, it just fucks with your head.” Sitting in Little Vinnie’s tattoo parlor in Finksburg, Maryland, home of the Michelangelo of nipple portraits, Tricia’s cavalier openness about her experience is eye-opening.
Tricia’s life endured a shift that cripples even the strongest of women. “Emotionally you’re in shock,” she says, “and then you just stay in shock.” Yet sitting in Vinnie’s office, waiting for her appointment, with her beautiful pixie haircut and laugh beaming across the room, it’s hard to imagine anything could knock this woman off her feet.
“I was supposed to have a lumpectomy,” she explains. “The game changes constantly in the beginning, so they thought they were just going to take a lump out. Then they realized I had more spots and they kept going back.” Upon finding a lump in her left breast, Tricia then underwent several sonograms, biopsies, and MRI biopsies until December, when doctors found she needed to have her entire left breast removed. Upon hearing the news, Tricia decided to get a double mastectomy, but unfortunately, doctors were unable to save her nipples.
“They couldn’t spare my nipples because the cancer was in my duct,” Tricia continues. “So I just got them both off.”
At 47, Tricia was young when diagnosed, a single mom and CEO of a local company. Nothing could have prepared her for the early onset diagnosis or for losing what she feels are an immensely important aspect of womanhood.
“The breasts define women in so many ways,” she says, five months of hard chemo behind her. “Cancer is also so scary because you hear of so many people dying of it. And once you get cancer, your stats go up of getting it again, so you live in fear all the time, with every pain, every ache.”
Sitting in Vinnie’s shop, Tricia is teeming with excitement, and chatty, a vat of experience with the aura of a woman who just conquered a country, whether she feels like it or not. Today her lymphedema is mild, the result of having three benign lymph-nodes removed, and lucky for her, Vinnie is an encyclopedia of new oncology research, and is able tip Tricia off on lymph replacement therapy. But information such as is this why women come to Vinnie in the first place.
“My girlfriend cut an article out of the Washington Post three years ago about Vinnie,” she tells the room. “The moment I was diagnosed she brought it over to me.” From that moment, Tricia always knew she would be using Vinnie.
On the same day Tricia went into surgery to get her breasts reconstructed, she called Vinnie to make her appointment to get her new nipples. With features in various publications internationally, Vinnie’s expertise is sought by breast cancer survivors all over the world. Regardless of how his clients find him, after witnessing his work first hand, it’s obvious how he’s been able to corner the market on 3D nipple tattoos for so long.
Vinnie doesn’t simply create tattoos, his nipples are a crucial part of his customers’ journey. After months of treatment behind her, and many more medicines for her body to acclimate to, Tricia is still on the road to recovery as she’s getting the final touches on her breasts.
“I’m on tamoxifen for ten years, which is a drug they give you to prevent recurrence,” Tricia says.
With a hysterectomy scheduled in the near future, influenced by the immense link between breast and ovarian cancer, Tricia still has miles to go before she can even feel some semblance of normality, plagued by fear of recurrence and while getting accustomed to the unfamiliarity of her reconstructed breasts.
“They’ve been numb for months. But think about it, they literally take everything out,” she says. “I had a scare, they think it’s scar tissue, but I was just in the other day with the radiologist getting a sonogram to check it out. I didn’t know I could still get breast cancer. That wasn’t great information. Of course, they don’t tell you these things.”
Accompanied by her mother, and her childhood nanny, Tricia sits in Vinnie’s chair in his office clad with skulls of exotic animals and enough room for an audience, waiting for Vinnie to take down her medical history and cancer process before starting to mix his palatte.
Still suffering from “chemo brain,” Tricia can barely remember the details of her double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, ACT and the trauma of her experience still coursing through her veins. “I was hospitalized three times. I passed out, fell down the steps,” she remembers. “Chemo just dries you up and causes lots of side effects and infections, cause your blood count is just shot.”
But Vinnie is prepared for Tricia’s “chemo brain,” ready with all the information to help her fill in the blanks for whatever she can’t remember. From spitting knowledge that even Tricia had never heard about her own condition, to being an expert on the perfect size, shape, and color for Tricia’s perfect aureolas, the ease that Vinnie provides his customers is refreshing, as both a tattoo artist and intellectual. After the incredible trials Tricia had to face, getting the finishing touches on her augmented breasts is a piece of her struggle that helps her regain her stolen femininity.
Once Vinnie and Tricia can piece together her medical history, Tricia’s session is ready to begin. The scars of her journey still sharp in her memory, she lays back in the chair and lets Vinnie assess his canvas. Tricia sits openly with her new breasts, explaining each scar, hardly discernible to an outsider, but to her, they are dark, especially the port on her breast where all the chemo was injected into her body.
“This is the ideal scenario,” Vinnie admires, “that’s perfect. This is one of the most natural reconstructions that I think I’ve ever seen.”
Tricia, surprised, looks at her breasts and smiles, remembering her pre-surgery preparations. “I wrote on my toenails before the surgery ‘Don’t Fuck it Up,’ so they could see it upside down,” Tricia laughs. “You got to find some humor in the tragedy of it all.”
Before her cancer, Tricia had no intentions of getting another tattoo after the pain of her first, now, she’s determined to get a part of herself back. “I don’t even remember what my nipples look like,” she remarks, “I mean how often do we look at our nipples?”
But regardless of not being able to remember the details of her nipples, she has faith in Vinnie to recreate something she is excited to live with for the rest of her life. But like any tattoo, that faith has it’s challenges.
“I’m single Vinnie, it has to look good,” she tells him, the fate of her gorgeous breasts at the mercy of his tattoo gun.
“I don’t have any intentions of doing an ugly one,” he retorts, in endearing humor as he draws the template for her new nipples onto her skin, reminding the room that humor is key to getting through the toughest, most sensitive times.
“To me, if you don’t have hope, you have nothing,” she tells us, and Vinnie nods in agreement, the brother of a breast cancer survivor himself. Through a supportive network of family, friends, and coworkers, Tricia was able to keep her hope alive, getting through the difficult intricacies of the disease with the help of four main mentors fully recovered and still enduring breast cancer. But that hope is what she found helped her the most. “I always knew I was going to live. Let’s fight,” she says, “I’m a driven woman.”
With the templates drawn on, and with Tricia’s approval, Vinnie begins to work his genius. During the session Tricia winces here and there, but holds her own against the needle.
“I hate pain, but if it’s for the right reason, like this,” she pauses and looks down at her breasts, “it’s worth it. I’ve been through enough pain, I know.” While Tricia went through her chemo, she was forced to find nannies and babysitters for her daughter, with the help of her core team, giving her the strength to get through her treatment, and finally, to Vinnie’s office.
“I needed this to feel a little like I was on the other side,” she explains, halfway through her session. But while her supporters encourage her to celebrate, Tricia, like many other survivors, feels she isn’t there yet.
“Two of my mentors are 15 years out, and they say it takes forever, you fight depression, with this ‘new normal’ .” But this “new normal,” is not as refreshing as outsiders may think, as bouncing back after chemo is more of a struggle than perceived. “I don’t feel like celebrating,” she says bluntly. “Everyone keeps telling me to celebrate my year since diagnosis, but I’m really not in celebratory mode, cause I’m still getting used to the meds, and menopause with tomoxifan, and I’m still worried I’m going to get it again.”
“You’re not getting it again,” Vinnie reaffirms, as he continues to create his masterpieces, a respected and reassuring voice amongst so much doubt. But that’s what people come to Vinnie for, a comforting environment, and the newest information in constantly advancing breast oncology research.
Vinnie is at the forefront of knowledge, spreading awareness to everyone who walks through his door. While Tricia struggles with the fear of recurrence, Vinnie tries to put her at ease by providing her with preventative knowledge she wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
“There’s a ligament called a ‘Cooper’s ligament’ or a ‘Suspensory Ligament of Cooper’, it’s the ligament that holds the breast tissue in place and it comes from underneath the clavicle,” Vinnie explains, in the most doctor-like attire any tattoo artist has ever worn. “Where the Cooper’s ligament and the breast meet is a very important juncture, and a common place of recurrence of breast cancer. There are some migratory breast cells that spread into the Cooper’s ligament, so when they take the breast tissue out and they leave that portion of the Cooper’s ligament in place, they’re finding that the recurrence are coming from the base of the Cooper’s ligament, so your radiologist might not know about that.”
Vinnie is the keeper of all this new information, and he relays it to survivors as they’re wrapping up their journeys. As the information is so new, his office is one of the first places women hear it, which is both incredible and daunting that a tattoo artist is the one informing these women of their options.
After having his assistant take down info on the Cooper’s ligament for Tricia, Vinnie puts the finishing touches on the last nipple, the atmosphere still relaxed and inviting thanks to Vinnie’s excellent bed-side manner.
“It’ll be nice just not to be naked,” Tricia swoons. “Like, bald-naked. People look at you in the gym when you change, it freaks people out that you don’t have nipples.” It’s difficult to understand how anyone could be freaked out by such an empowered and impressive woman’s beautifully reconstructed breasts, but it’s obvious there’s a lot about breast cancer that those untouched by it are unaware of.
Tricia’s mother sits on a couch across the room, the first tattoo shop she’s been inside in all her 85 years. But as the tattoo gun silences, and upon seeing her daughter’s new nipples both she and the room are speechless.
“Look, Mommy!” Tricia exclaims, stunned by the reality of Vinnie’s work.
“They look so freakin’ real,” Vinnie says, modestly admiring his work and the work of Tricia’s surgeon. “You can’t even tell that they’re not real.”
“Thank God for you,” Tricia says to Vinnie, a part of herself whole again. And while she still has much more to get past in her journey, it’s obvious she couldn’t be happier about the gift Vinnie has given her, a pain worth enduring that she will never forget.
Photos by Brooke Hall