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The Tattoo Industry Needs Your Help! By Karen Kursteiner

By October 3, 2004

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Let my introduce myself; I am a proud member of an incredibly diverse group of artists that come from all walks of life and all backgrounds. It is my distinct privilege to know individuals in the talented, intelligent and creative community of Tattoo. My name is Karen Kursteiner.

It is my opinion that seriously perilous and sad times have fallen upon the community of Tattoo. Serious enough that in mine and other opinions that if the member of the tattoo industry does not act the industry itself could sustain serious damage. I know the article is long but be patient and read it through. Yes it is seriously band but take heart there is much to do. On August 2nd 2004. The American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI) filled a law suite against eight tattoo pigment manufactures and distributors.

  • Huck Spalding Enterprises Inc. (Spalding’s own brand of pigment)
  • Superior Tattoo Equipment Inc, (Prism Ink)
  • International Body Jewelry and Tattoo Supply Inc. (distribution only of Millenium pigments and tattoo machine manufacturer)
  • Lucky Tattoo and Medical Supplies Inc. (Lucky Tattoo own brand of pigment)
  • National Arts colors and Tattoo Supply Inc. (Higgins, Pelican, Talens ink)
  • Papillon Studio and Mfg. Inc. (Starbright pigments)
  • Talon Supply Inc. (unknown)
  • Unimax Supply Inc (Eunju Kang, Mario Barth, Millenium +)
The AESI is not a small organization to be taken lightly. They are very serious and have taken some very serious action. Actions, which can affect every member of the tattoo community.

A COMMENT MADE BY THE AESI “The Institute asked these tattoo ink and pigment manufacturers to change their practices,” according to Sivas, “but the companies refused to take appropriate or responsible actions to voluntarily lower the dangerous levels of toxics in their tattoo ink and pigment products, comply with current law or notify consumers of the inherent health risks from the use of their products.

The problem with that statement made by the AESI is that the pigment manufactures I spoke to said that they thought they had properly satisfied the AESI, so why are they then proceeding

Lets take a look at some of the facts as we know them and look at some questions we should all be asking ourselves

The legal action is based upon California’s Proposition 65, voted in to law in November 1986. CA prop 65 was an initiative presented to the California populous to create safe drinking water. California prop 65 was “designed to protect California’s drinking water sources form contamination by these chemicals, allow Californian consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase”. “These chemicals” are currently a list of 550+ items. The CA prop 65 web page can be found at: www.prop65news.com or www.oehha.org/prop65.html

Ok so far so good, however a closer look at Ca. prop 65 and AESI’s actions. Some of my questions about the impending legal action are, is the letter of the law being abused and are the AESI’s intentions purely benevolent?

The creation of the list of harmfully chemicals is questionable; the list is derived from two committees appointed by the state in the field of science and health professions. At the surface of that objective sounds good, however. Hear are some more questions that I have been asking my self. How was the information gathered? How were the tests preformed and what are the actual results? We have all heard that everything causes cancer in white lab mice so how accurate are the test? If the products we have been using are so harmful how come there are not allot of very sick people out there?

I don’t know any individual in the tattoo community that wishes to harm another person. If you are like me I want to put art on peoples bodies. I want to help them express themselves in a positive manner by defining who they are by their choice of body art. The vast majority of us work hard at preventing contamination and the spread of disease. We vigilantly and diligently protect our customers and our own health.

Lets clarify one more thing before we go on. For a chemical to be listed as a carcinogen list, it has to have been known to increase the risk of cancer by 1 in 100,000 over a 70-year life span. Meaning if you are exposed to an item listed by the state of Ca. you might have a increased risk of contracting cancer by 1 in 100,000 over 70 years. If this is true then a warning needs to be issued on the product. Or the manufacturer needs to prove that the product does not fit in the category listed above. Again how is the data gathered and how accurate is it if an item can be placed on the California’s list of known carcinogens. Why is there a loophole in the law for a manufacturer to disprove the government’s findings?

Now that we have more questions than actual answers, I have a few more thought for you. The AESI is a non-profit organization. This organization is without membership or charter of financial support. On their web sight I don’t see pleas for donations from the private sector like I do with most non-profit organizations. I do not see acknowledgement of support by businesses large or small. So where does the AESI get it’s financing? Large lawsuits like this one take huge amounts of money and if you go onto the AESI website www.aesi.ws/public_ed.htm: you will see what I mean. A copy of the legal action can be found at the AESI web site.

The tattoo community is not the only thing the AESI is interested in. Well they say that they are non-profit and that’s ok with me but not all branches of the government have profit centers. The CIA, FBI and the SS just to name a few do not have profit centers that does not make them any less part of the government.

Is this just big brother using prop 65 as an abuse of the law to attack and slander the tattoo community? If so one might ask themselves what is the propose.

I have sent an overnight letter to the AESI requesting a copy of the studies. Studies that show the chemicals in question that are in the tattoo pigments, as they pertain in the legal action. I personally want to know how the studies have been preformed, by whom and are there motives benevolent and without question. So far I the AESI has flatly refused to responded to me in any way shape or form.

On the AESI web site they state “Ms. Sivas also noted that the Internet search engine Lycos ranks Tattoos as one of its all-time most popular search terms. Reaching its zenith in 2002 as the number two most popular requested search terms. Outpacing search requests for the rock star Britney Spears, marijuana or the music file sharing service Kazaa”. So know that we see how we got big brother’s attention let us ask ourselves why we have their attention?

Could it be the nature of the tattoo industries method of payment that has big brothers attention? More historically than currently the most customary form of payment has been cash. Is it that we as a community are being maligned and slandered because the IRS fears it might not me getting its cut? Just a thought.

Make no mistake about it the language of the legal action is horrific. When I say the tattoo community is being attacked we are. It is with the symbiotic relationship between the manufactures and the artist that I make my point. They being the manufactures and suppliers do not survive with out the consumption of the artist and in the same hand what would we tattoo with without pigment? The relationship is symbiotic and what they accuse our counterparts with they accuse us!

The AESI has accused the tattoo manufactures and of violating Ca law “each defendant has engaged in conduct that violates H&S code 25249.6 et seq. This conduct includes knowingly and intentionally exposing individuals to (__see list__) products without first providing such individuals with a clear and reasonable warning regarding the carcinogenicity of (_see list__)” “knowingly disseminating false and misleading advertising which constitute separate and cumulative acts of unlawful, unfair and/or fraudulent business practices”

**(__See list__) = Lead, Antimony, Arsenic, Beryllium, Chromium, Cobalt, Nickel and Selenium.

Now what’s the beef you might say? Its just California, isn’t it? Just because the AESI is using Ca prop 65 to start this legal entanglement does not mean that it will stop there. Remember that it was CA prop 65 that changed the way your automobile is registered in every state.

At this point it looks like the AESI is trying to put the pigment manufactures and distributors of out of business completely. Each of the defendants is being charged for 47 infractions of the law 46 times $2500.00 per day for the last four years times all of the defendants is $1,343,200,000.00 dollars. Which one of the defendants will be able to withstand the fines and penalties that the AESI is asking for?

Now prop 65 says that a company must prove that the product does not have the ability to cause cancer by more than “one in ten thousand” per exposure each day for 70 years. Or they must post a warning in so that the consumer can be aware of the risk and make a competent decision.

On the surface this sounds like a good idea, then you put an uneducated pubic in the mix and you have mass hysteria. ? If the chemicals are so dangerous why not insist they be removed instead of putting a warning label on?

I remember prop 65 it was an intense campaign "to make drinking water safe". What it was, (in my opinion) was scare tactics to get a law passed. Then they used the law to do national legal platforms it says so on the AESI web sight. Everyone so scared because of the campaign that they thought if you drank the municipal water you would poison your children, give them cancer and destroy the lives of everyone you loved. It was a brutal campaign. Out of mass hysteria the Californians voted prop 65 into law. That was just before the birth of the bottled water boom and we can all see now how that was born. Read the prop 65 literatures and it the government’s ability and possible intent will make more sense. Read what the AESI has accomplished as far as national changes in the way the Wine industry bottles its Wine and then is sold nationally, changes in the cosmetic industry nationally and changes in the tobacco industry and now project that on to the tattoo industry.

Hence the tattoo industry is in trouble even if you can get some ink. Tattoo artist may think that this is only a California problem think again. The AESI has changed the way wine manufacturers seal their bottles it has changed the cosmetic industry nation wide and much more.

Again I do not believe that any of us want to use unsafe product or harm any one. We use the same products on our self’s. My adult child my husband and myself all have tattoos.

Still it is better to police ourselves than have big brother do it for us. When has an industry ever come off better from being micromanaged by the government? If the pigments need certain chemicals to be removed then lets get it done. I however have no intention of letting the government frighten me into action.

I do have ideas on action that I think is critical!

Tattoo artist have been using pigment from these companies for decades. They have helped provide for us a living, an expression like no other. The demands for monetary penalties are so vast. I do not see how the companies will survive. Action must be taken, it is time to give back some of what you have received. It is my opinion that the tattoo community must stand up as a whole and be heard.

The way I see it there are a variety of things to be done.

  1. The public will more than likely be frightened by this, once it really hits the media. By then it will be too late. Lets get the facts and educate our own and the public. Are they trying to damage the industries credibility by playing on the fear factor of the populous? Fight back let every tattoo artist you know be painfully aware that his or her industry is in distress and his or her livelihood could be affected. Education and dissemination of the facts to the tattoo community and the populous is a must. Find the facts for yourself and make a point to educate every person in your scope. Not just other tattoo artist, friends and family but other industries as well. Lots of people in lots of occupations have tattoos. Contact the tattoo magazines and disseminate facts and accurate information.
  2. Think ahead if every person that you gave a tattoo for the last four years came to you and said I want it removed because the AESI said it might contain harmful things in it what will that do to your business? Read through the legal action there is clause for that in there. Not against you in specific but as an industry. And whom will your clients come to see? Again would we not have a whole lot of sick people on our hands, would we ourselves not be ill?
  3. Financially support the pigment manufactures. If every tattoo artist gave $50.00 directly to the manufacturer (the receipt of one small tattoo) it would enable the defendants to defend them selves and us. This is important, there is a clause in the last part of the legal action that poses a class action remuneration for the recipients of tattoos. The final avalanche and fall out of this action just might crush popularity of tattoo. Did I loose you hear, it is the price of one small tattoo verses you livelihood.
We are contacting the defendants to see if they want to create a trust fund for this. More information on this will be forthcoming.

Are we the community of derelicts that we are being painted as or are we a community of intelligent, artistic business people that I think we are? Stand up be heard, take action.

So what action are you going to take? I have taken action on all of the above. I am trying to educate myself as to the facts. I am supporting the pigment manufactures financially, I am trying to help alert the tattoo community and I am trying to educate the public.


September 2, 2006 at 7:57 pm
(1) Hannah. says:

I’ve been reading many of your tattoo articles and they have all been pleasant to read as well as informative.

However, I’m disappointed that someone as well-informed as yourself could so adamantly stick by the ink manufacturers and even tattoo artists who have NO idea WHAT is in their inks in the first place.

Undoubtedly the thought of Big Brother overlooking the masses is not a lovely thought but I disagree completely with you about people attempting to manage themselves. Frankly, many people cannot.

There are extremely ignorant and young adults and teens who are dabbling with the tattoo industry, with little to no thought about any hazards in ink content!

How do you expect to persuade anyone without any evidence to prove that these inks are highly toxic?

I’ve heard the argument that – “So many people have it, so why shouldn’t it be okay?”

Yet I would hear the same argument in the genetically modified foods we eat. No one’s grown a third ear on their back yet, have they?

YET, doctors and scientists are still not fully sure HOW these chemicals will interact with the human DNA or body in the LONG TERM.

I am proud to say I am tattooed myself – several times. But I am aghast and disgusted with the way the tattoo industry and the manufacturers – instead of bucking up and finally doing what they SHOULD DO (making the public aware of what chemicals they are using and ALL health effects) – are actually raising up their hands, laughing it off, and not at all making an attempt to acknowledge what the hell they’re doing.

April 4, 2007 at 6:07 pm
(2) Spider says:

I am definitely concerned about a “Big Brother” approach to this, but, as a Registered Nurse/Tattoo artist in the business for twelve years now, I am constantly angered and frustrated by the ink manufacturers’ absolute refusal to give me any information regarding the contents of the inks that I am putting under my clients’ skin! My associates and I have been able to get enough information (i.e.; pigment codes) through the MSDS to research some of our ink contents, but one has to be very patient and diligent, not to mention super computer literate to make any headway. It also helps to have ALOT of time on your hands to do this….it ain’t easy! The ink maufacturers, for the most part, have even given us the runaround when we ask for a MSDS! I shouldn’t have to work so hard just to find out what’s in a product that I am paying for and that my client assumes I am informed about. So, while I can see this as a potential threat to the industry, I also feel that it’s about time that these manufacturers get some scruples. This IS a public health issue, whether you like it or not, and if the manufacturers would take the lead in this, then we wouldn’t have to worry about “Big Brother”, now would we? Sending $$ for their legal defense or to help them pay their fines is just stupid, to my way of thinking, as it only encourages them to continue refusing to do what’s right. Just in the amount of painstaking research we have done so far, we have been APALLED to discover what’s in some of these inks, and you’re DEFENDING this? I just don’t get it.

September 29, 2007 at 5:23 am
(3) Mike says:

I am sitting here, 4:30 am, with puss oozing out of a tattoo I had done 5 years ago. It has red in it. I have always had bumps, scar tissue. The oozing, and itching has never gone away. I am wide awake now, and looking for relief. I doubt very much the artist I went to has any info on what kind of ink he put into my skin. I have seen a dermatologist about it, and she gave me a cream, which is not helping. I am upset with this, and wish , like these two have posted, that artist would do their research, and if you can not get info on your inks, dont use them….signed…Itching and oozing after 5 years

February 11, 2008 at 12:37 am
(4) sabian says:

I recently tried ROYAL DRAG0N inks of late and found that they do not even stay in the skin. I am thinking of trying PRIZM inks instead as I have been told these stay in the skin well. What is ones advice concerning these inks?

Thank you.

February 26, 2008 at 1:36 pm
(5) Susan says:

Like Mike, although it’s not 4:30am, I too have the same symptoms he’s having but my tattoo is from 15 years ago! Why the irritation and sweling now after 15 years….?? Love tattoos, but wish I never got them.

March 15, 2008 at 8:40 pm
(6) Michael in Boston says:

I have conventional tattoos and never really even considered what toxic components were in the ink. Really, never even entered my mind. AFTER I got my tattoos I started doing research. Many if not most of the tattoo inks have some toxic and carcinogenic ingredients. From what I have read, most of the chemicals are not THAT Harmful until you decide to have them lasered off. Then the harmful toxic contents of the ink get trapped in your lymph glands and can cause problems. Ultimately while you are healing from your tattoo any ink that gets into the blood stream while getting the tattoo can end up there too.

There is a new tattoo ink company called freedom-2 ink that is not only removable, but the tattoo ink is FDA approved and all components of the ink are bioabsorbable and completely toxin free. I don’t have all the info on the company, but the tattoos are permanent just like conventional, but removable if chosen with one laser treatment, thus making filtration systems of the body unaffected by the sudden release of the ink, since it is innocuous and non-harmful.

Hope that helps!

November 30, 2008 at 8:32 am
(7) Aralee says:


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