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The Nipple Artist: Behind the Scenes With Subject Caitlin Kiernan

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Caitlin Kiernan at Vinnie Myers' tattoo parlor in Finksburg, Maryland. Photo: Kassie Bracken/The New York Times

Caitlin Kiernan at the tattoo parlor of Vinnie Myers in Finksburg, Maryland. Photo: Kassie Bracken/The New York Times

Watch “The Nipple Artist,” a collaboration between POV and The New York Times that tells the story of one woman’s journey for closure… and nipples »

Caitlin Kiernan is a subject of the documentary The Nipple Artist and the author of an upcoming book, “The Cutie’s Guide to Breast Cancer.” She also wrote about reconstructed breasts tattoos and her experience with tattoo artist Vinnie Myers in The New York Times. Read “A Tattoo That Completes a New Breast.”

POV: What made you want to share your story and experience on such a large scale?

Caitlin Kiernan: Everybody talks about the mastectomy. You get the mastectomy and everybody makes a big deal out of it, but that’s the halfway point.

I had my double mastectomy February of last year, so that just shows you how long the process is. I remember my doctor saying that this is a marathon. It is really important to have your first surgery, so that the oncologic result doesn’t get compromised, but after that, it’s the tortoise and the hare — me being the tortoise.

And no one talks about the nipple tattoos, but as you go through each phase, you start researching to get information about the best options and you know, every time I saw the tattoos that plastic surgeons did, they looked like pepperoni slices! They were so round and red!

So I wanted to tell this story because, not only do people not talk about it, but it was so hard for me to get good information.

And then, I wanted to tell this story because it’s the last thing you do.

When you’re done with that, you are done with reconstruction and hopefully you’re on to a better, healthier phase of your life. It’s almost an afterthought, but it’s a really important moment for so many survivors.

POV: Are there any other people out there who do nipple tattoos?

Caitlin Kiernan: Not really. Years ago, I worked at a celebrity weekly and one of our photo editors ended up working for (tattoo artist) Kat Von D. She put me in touch with Kat and I asked her for a recommendation of a tattoo artist in New York who does this work and she didn’t know anyone.

There are some cosmetic makeup artists who are trained in eyeliner and eyebrow tattoos, that sort of thing, and some of them do [nipple tattoos], but they charge like $3,800. Vinnie charges $800, and they’re doing what a plastic surgeon is doing. And the limitation with a plastic surgeon is that they have a small palette of colors, they don’t know how to mix, they don’t know how the pigments are going to change within different skin tones, and for women who have had unilateral mastectomies, the matching part is terrible.

One of the women I interviewed [for The Times] was a black woman who had a unilateral mastectomy. Her plastic surgeon put her down for the tattooing and when she woke up she had a nipple for a white woman. And once you have pigment in your skin, it’s much harder to fix the color, and nobody could fix it.

Another plastic surgeon eventually put her in touch with Vinnie. It took three sessions for him to fix it, because in trying to get so much peachy color in dark skin, the surgeon basically created scar tissue in her breast. It was a mess. And this is what’s happening.

Vinnie showed us some “before” pictures of women who’ve come to him and its unbelievable. But this is happening because its like sending a plumber in to do an electrical job — it’s not what they’re skilled at doing.

Vinnie told me more than 80 percent of his work is corrections.

POV: How did you find Vinnie Myers, since it was so difficult to find information about tattoo options?

Caitlin Kiernan: I heard about him through another breast cancer survivor’s blog. I remember she had a picture of herself, and she hadn’t had the [physical] nipple reconstruction done, so she needed the tattoo to create a 3D aesthetic. There are a lot of women who get to that final point of “nipple talk” and they’re already like five surgeries deep – so a lot of women opt out of that. Because I was young, I just wanted to make sure I looked as normal as possible.

POV: Do you feel like there’s a stigma around reconstructing for aesthetic?

Caitlin Kiernan: When I was going through my cancer, I originally planned to do a lumpectomy with radiation. They were going to have to radiate my right lung because of where the tumor was. And there’s a lot of downsides with radiation – you can’t reconstruct if the cancer comes back, your tissue get all janky, it’s a mess.

I remember when I told my sister that I was going to have a mastectomy instead of radiation, and she got very mad at me because she thought that I was doing it for the aesthetic purposes of having a boob job.

It is kind of weird, on one hand, people are like, “You do you!” but I got a lot of pushback from my family and I was like, “These aren’t boobs you’re really swinging around a pole with — it’s not like that!” You can get a good result, and I feel like I’ve had great doctors and I have gotten a good result… and I do show everyone my boobs, but that wasn’t the initial thing. For me, it was that I didn’t want to revisit this in 10 years if I’m sick again.

But I do think that in certain circles if you talk about like, “Oh, I have great boobs,” or “They’re better than before,” some people are taken aback, but you know, I just don’t care what people think about it.

POV: Does insurance cover nipple tattoos?

Caitlin Kiernan: My insurance didn’t cover the $800 cost, and I’m in the process of contesting it because they’re claiming that [Myers] is not a — they’re term was a “trained” or “adequate expert” or “trained medical professional” to provide that. But that’s just semantics — they’re basically telling me a tattoo artist isn’t authorized to give me a tattoo. They would cover the plastic surgeons who do the tattooing, and don’t do a great job at it. They generally charge upward to $1,500 for that visit and it’s completely covered by the Women’s Health Care and Cancer Act. But you can’t get covered from a tattoo artist.

[Myers is] working with Johns Hopkins and various places in Maryland. They recognize him as a trained medical professional to do this part. So in Maryland, it’s not a problem.

POV: What is your ultimate goal in sharing your story?

Caitlin Kiernan: First, I just find what Vinnie does fascinating because nobody else is doing it. He does close to 3,000 tattoos a year. He is booked. When we were there, it was patient after patient of breast cancer survivors. I think what he’s doing is amazing because he’s really using his talent to help people and I want people to know that.

Secondly, I feel like every woman who goes through such a horrific experience has the right and should have the access to the best possible work, and to get back to feeling like a normal woman again. I mean, you have your breasts taken off — it’s such a crazy thing for a woman.

Third, for healthcare providers, insurance companies — this should be a non-negotiable. This should be covered, this is not like I’m going in and getting a random tattoo on my body. I’m getting nipples — which they would cover at a more expensive rate from plastic surgeons – so it just doesn’t make sense to me. I have faith in my insurance that when I go through the appeals and explain it, they’re going to cover it. But tattoo artists aren’t brought into the loop and they really should be part of the reconstruction dialogue when you’re meeting with your doctors. I just think its a matter of being introduced to the right tattoo artist, and I think Vinnie is a great person for doctors to look at and see that it is possible.

POV: Do you see a change in the visibility of breast cancer survivors because of how many more women sharing their experiences?

Caitlin Kiernan: Obviously, Angelina [Jolie] put a spotlight on it. In her case, the BRCA gene she carried gave her an 80 percent chance of being diagnosed. And a lot of people, even when you had the gene, would think that having surgery was a dramatic step to take. But I feel like people are starting to accept it more. I talked to my doctors and asked what the fall out from Angelina was, and he said it comes up in every conversation.

Watch In The Family. A young woman tests positive for the BRCA1 mutation, “the breast cancer gene” at age 27 and is forced to make heart-wrenching decisions. Free online for a limited time. »

What was great about her story was that it allowed people to have questions, to see that there are other ways and types of surgeries and recovery processes, which is great for everybody. It’s great for her, its great for the medical community, patients, women that are going through it, the more dialogue with anything is better.

POV: Tell me a little about your book upcoming book, “The Cutie’s Guide to Breast Cancer.”

Caitlin Kiernan: I started writing it while I was going through treatment. I was a beauty director at the time, and I realized that when I talk to a lot of other breast cancer patients, the first question that you ask when you’re meeting with your oncologist is, “Am I going to lose my hair?” It’s not, “Am I gonna die from this?” That question gets answered, but when you start talking about chemotherapy the question is, “What is going to happen to me?” And there are so many things that happen, from mouth sores to losing your hair. My hair has never been the same after chemo. I didn’t lose all of it, but everything changed. My skin, my nails, everything, the texture of everything, your sense of smell.

But I was able to turn to my good friends, major experts in the beauty world like Ted Gibson was taking me wig shopping, and I was talking to Wendy Williams about things, I had the best dermatologists, and so on. And I just realized, I have such access to great information that allowed me to maintain my physical appearance. And I just thought every woman should be able to know — because you lose so much of your identity.

POV: Are you as happy as you were the moment in the video when its all over and you see the final product?

Caitlin Kiernan: Absolutely, I am so thrilled with the result. I feel great, I feel physically normal, I actually feel like my body looks better now than it did before. I know I’m never going to be the woman I was, but I feel like now I’m better.

Watch The Nipple Artist, read POV’s conversation with filmmaker Kassie Bracken or watch the POV documentary In the Family, now streaming free for a limited time.

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Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau is a Web Producer at POV Digital. She is also a producer of the digital documentary Folk to Folk. Prior to POV, Emma worked at Emerson College's Engagement Game Lab. She holds a Bachelors degree in journalism from Boston University.