Ink safety: amateur tattooing and health risks

photo courtesy of Anamaria Husar

Husar’s tattoo, which she received while still underage.

A year and a half ago, a group of USF students gathered together to cement their friendship in one of the most permanent ways possible. Each of them wanted a tattoo, and they decided that, instead of going the conventional tattoo-parlor route, they would design their own tattoos and tattoo them on each other. Current X-year Novocollegian Michael Floering happened to be one of them.

“My friend Charles was an art major and he did mine,” Floering recalled. “It’s meant to be a swamp thing, and it’s placed so that it pops out whenever I raise my arm.”

Floering’s tattoo, and many others like it, showcases the increase in do-it-yourself body modification techniques that are being used as substitutes for parlor based tattooing. Stick-and-poke is the current term for tattoo done at home with needles and India ink.

“Certain things look better as stick-and-pokes,” Floering stated. “If I had gotten this at a tattoo shop it would look a little too dramatic, and that isn’t what I wanted.”

One of the main reasons for this rise seems to be because people, especially young, penniless college students, don’t want to have to pay to get inked. This has also led to an increase in events coined “tattoo house parties.” While the imagery of getting tattooed by a colorfully decorated artist in a comfortable living-room setting can seem quite romantic, the reality is anything but.

“I’ve been to tattoo house parties before,” said first-year Anamaria Husar, “but I would never have gotten a tattoo done there. The artists are usually drunk or high and I wasn’t going to get something permanently inked by someone like that.”

Husar has, however, had her own experience with getting inked under questionable circumstances.

“I was sixteen and I had wanted this tattoo for like six months,” Husar reminisced, “so I started asking around work for a place that would tattoo a minor. When I found one they asked for my ID, but when they gave me the paper you have to fill out I lied on that and I lied when he asked me my age. But he copied my license so he knew I wasn’t eighteen.”

Husar said that she was very careful to watch the artist as he prepared her, because she wanted to make sure everything was sterile. Floering also admitted that when he and his friends did their stick-and-pokes they used alcohol and boiled water multiple times to sterilize their tools.

So the question becomes, where is the line drawn when choosing how to get a tattoo? Tattoos are marks on a body that—unless laser removed with a healthy dose of pain—will be there permanently. Tattoo house parties are commonly held because people either want cheap tattoos, are underage, or the artist isn’t certified. Plus, health risks are definitely a concern to consider when deciding how to proceed. The medical professionals at the Counselling and Wellness Center had their own opinions on the matter as well.

“Infection is a really big risk,” explained Shelli Adam, a certified Physician’s Assistant who works at the Center. “MRSA, Staph infection, HIV and Hepatitis are the main health risks, and they can cause death. Basically, getting a tattoo anywhere other than a tattoo shop is not a good idea. If a tattoo shows redness, red streaking from the site, or if you feel nauseous, fever or sweating, you have an infection.”

Adam warned though, that if a person were to attend an event with tattooing outside of a shop setting, the smartest thing to do is to make sure that every piece of equipment that touches skin is taken from an unopened package.

“[Parlors] have structured settings where everyone is sober,” Adam reinforced. “The State and shop managers and others are constantly checking the sterilization techniques to make sure that everyone is safe.”

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