Magazine Features Tattoos

Hygiene Hysteria? Tattooing Through The Red Tape

Originally featured in Skin Deep Magazine December 2015

Most of us are lucky enough to have never suffered the pain or ramifications of an infected tattoo. The majority of tattoo artists are meticulous in following industry standard practices regarding hygiene and, although specific aftercare instructions vary from one tattoo shop to the next, artists generally take great care in educating customers on caring for their tattoos at home. But there’s always one that has to ruin the party for everyone else. Unfortunately, most of all for those who had the misfortune to get inked by them, there are some less than scrupulous artists out there. Artists with little or no experience, artists that operate from their kitchen tables and artists that reuse needles. And now the law is catching up with them.

In Wales there are proposals to bring in a new law that could see an end to walking in from the street and getting atattoo without pre booking. Customers could be required to have a “cooling off period” to think about the procedure before getting it done. All parlours would also need a license and be subject to stricter oversight by the authorities. A similar upgrade in the regulation of how tattoo parlours operate is currently taking place in New York, and Australia beefed up its scrutiny of tattoo shops back in 2013. A pattern is developing and it seems clear that it won’t be long before increased regulation hits tattoo artists and their shops throughout the UK.

Most tattoo artists express skepticism about the increased regulation in the trade. And it’s not, as some have suggested, because they consider themselves as ‘outsiders’ or hold a lingering suspicion of authority and law enforcement. We’ve long moved on from the days when tattooing operated on the fringes of society. The reason behind the reluctance is the government’s failure to consult with the industry when drawing up regulations. It’s not the first time New York has responded disproportionately to a suspected case of bad hygiene in a tattoo shop. In 1961, New York City banned tattoos altogether in a knee-jerk reaction to an alleged, and what some claim was non-existent, link between tattooing and a minor outbreak of Hepatitis B. As a result, tattooing remained illegal until 1997.

In New York, the increased regulation is set to go into effect on December 12th, much to the chagrin of both tattoo artists and their clients.  The legislation will require tattoo studios to use single-use ink and single-use needles, which come in sealed, sterile packages. And while it’s already standard practice for reputable artists to use single-use needles, it’s the single-use ink that artists are struggling to accept. Instead of the standard large bottles of inks which artists pour into small plastic, single use, disposable “ink caps”, they would have to use prepackaged ink shots. The problem? Many artists claim that these shots are lower quality ink, much more expensive and come in a limited range of colours. Some argue that it’s akin to putting the entire industry back fifteen years.

A Change.org petition to stop the regulation going ahead in December was started by tattoo artist Bridget Punsalang and already has close to 50000 signatures. Bridget started the petition after reading the bill and realising the impact it would have on her profession. “The cost of operating as a tattoo artist would skyrocket” she tells me. Not that she’s against regulation per se. Bridget agrees some regulation helps weed out the people that are actually putting their clients in danger.

Indeed, the reasoning behind the new regulations, in both Wales and New York, is health concerns. In Wales, there has been a slew of infections arising from dirty needles used in one Newport piercing and tattoo salon. Although none of the infections were tattoo related, the authorities have a tendency to bundle both types of body modification together. Under current UK laws, local authorities have no power to shut down tattoo studios. They are unable to carry out background checks, there is no statutory inspection regime. Only courts have the power to shut down salons meaning something has to go wrong before hand. Only then will it go to court resulting in a situation whereby dirty and dangerous tattoo shops can remain open and working on unsuspecting clients for long periods of time. But should the unprofessionalism of one tattoo shop result in every other reputable shop in Wales, numbered at 330, being subject to stricter regulations?

Authorities argue that regulations protecting the health and safety of tattoo clients are necessary and important. Although all tattoo artists are required to have a license, the process for obtaining one is not particularly onerous. As the law stands, anybody can buy a gun and set up shop – no qualifications required. There is no formal minimum standard of education required and, other than some basic hygiene requirements and a restriction on tattooing under eighteens, artists are pretty much given free reign over their operations. Not all artists have an issue with regulation. Kevin Paul, the derby based tattoo artist and face of Channel 5’s ‘Tattoo Disasters’ has been campaigning for increased regulation for several years. Paul is particularly perturbed by Councils licensing people to work from their homes. Even in New York, some tattooists don’t believe the impending regulation is as bad as it appears. Lou Rubino, owner of Tattoo Lou’s, a chain of seven New York studios first established in 1958, is one of them. Regulations are good, he says “they keep us on our toes and make sure we are doing the right thing for our clients.” Lou also owns two of the world’s top pigment manufacturers Kuro Sumi and World Famous Tattoo Inks. And while the cost of implementing the regulation will be a huge expense to manufacturers, he believes artists’ fears that ink will be of a lower quality are unfounded. Every brand, he says, will do what they have to do in order to save their market share and there is no reason for ink to be of a different quality just because it’s sold in a single service package.

Internet rumours have fueled the debate on increased regulation on both sides of the Atlantic. But we all know the internet is full of opinions masquerading as facts. So, just what will be the effect of this increased regulation?

The number one effect? Cost. Almost every element of proposed legislation will result in extra costs to tattoo artists, which will need to be passed on to us, the consumers. There are plans to introduce professional hygiene and health standards, which could result in prosecutions and fines. This, in turn, will see the cost of insurance for tattoo parlours rise as the potential to fall foul of the law is increased. 

There is also talk of the proposed legislation in Wales requiring a prospective client to visit a tattoo studio in advance to consult with the artist before going away to think about it. Walk ins are the bread and butter for many tattoo parlours. Without them, some artists will spend long periods of the day twiddling their thumbs and not earning. Once again, the cost will need to be passed on to the customers to make up for the shortfall and keep the business in operation.

The future of tattoo conventions as we know them could also be in jeopardy. Those of us that want to get inked by a favourite artist from outside the country or even in a different town at a convention might have a very different experience. Having a consultation in person, prior to a convention would be impossible for artists coming in from outside the country unless the legislation incorporates some sort of email consultation exception. And that’s before we get into the costs that would be associated with getting a hall like Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, where the annual Cardiff Tattoo convention is held, vetted for hygiene purposes. This would result in, at best, gross increase in ticket price and at worst, no convention, period.

On the counter side, there are obvious advantages to increased regulation. Those among you that have ever woken up with a permanent reminder of a drunken bad decision will be spared any future embarrassment. The ’cooling off period’ will mean drunken customers will need to come back, sober, before going ahead with that ill advised Mike Tyson face tribute. Misspelled tattoos will hopefully be resigned to the history books as customers have time to think about the proposed designs and double check any dubious or questionable spellings in them.

The number one advantage for customers will be the security and comfort in knowing a tattoo shop is reputable. The new legislation in Wales would introduce a “Scores on the Doors” type system, which would see tattoo studios display a certificate in the window confirming its hygiene rating on the door similar to restaurants. Councils will also have the power to shut down rogue businesses without having to go through the courts system. 

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to increased regulation. While the current system of self-regulation has, by and large, been effective, the risks associated with the few who choose to neglect health and safety concerns are difficult to ignore. Whatever happens in Wales, or the rest of the country, we can only hope that when legislation does comes in, the government will consult the industry and the people that will be ultimately be affected by it.

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