Some say an autoclave is not necessary, especially when disposable needles and tubes are also readily available. Each customer gets their own one-time-use needle and tube, so there is no risk of exposure. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem, though, is that needles and tubes are not the only culprits in spreading disease. There are so many other things that can be handled wrongly by an inexperienced person that hasn’t been properly trained.
In October of 2005, four Maryland teenagers all got tattoos from some guy working out of his basement. What they really got was a Staph (Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) infection, severe enough that two of the teens had to be hospitalized. In the state of Maryland where this happened, “the only requirements are that tattooists post written warnings of possible complications and follow guidelines such as wearing gloves and using disposable needles.” (Article) Well, guess what? Mr. Basement Tattooer was following those rules. The man "appeared to be operating in a clean manner and that each of the needles he used to do the tattoos were individually wrapped and taken out of the wrapper and discarded after each use," and he also wore gloves, according to the police report. And yet, that didn’t save these kids from getting sick.
What really amazes me is that so many people are willing to make allowances for their tattooer. They will make excuses for them, stating that at least they boil their equipment or soak it in alcohol, or that he/she uses disposable needles and tubes. And yet, would those same people make those excuses for their dentist, doctor or surgeon? Would it be OK for your dentist to pull out a pick and assure you that even though they don’t have an autoclave, they soaked the pick in alcohol really good after using it on their last patient? Or maybe your doctor has single-use speculums, so I’m sure you women wouldn’t mind getting a pap smear in their basement, right? I’ll bet your surgeon would give you a really good deal on that triple bypass if you let him do it in his kitchen – he’s never learned Universal Precautions but he promises to wear gloves. I don’t think anyone would argue that these ideas are completely absurd, but why is it not so absurd to allow someone to puncture your skin under non-sterile conditions just because it’s body art instead of a medical procedure?
Even getting a tattoo or piercing in a licensed studio does not necessarily promise a safe experience. Currently (Nov. 2005), an inquest is being held in the death of a teenager who died of severe septicaemia (blood poisoning – defined as an “invasion of the bloodstream by virulent microorganisms”) after receiving a lip piercing. This was even in a shop, not someone’s home. But a comment was made during the inquest that the woman who performed the piercing removed the needle cap with her mouth. When asked if she had ever read the code of practice, she said she had "seen it."
Cross contamination is so easy to do. We all do it every day – even if we’re careful there are ways in which we make mistakes without even realizing it. When it comes to tattooing and piercing, practitioners cannot afford to make mistakes. Your tattoo artist cannot slip up and forget to take one of those important steps of Universal Precautions. Since most people not in the field have not personally been trained in cross-contamination prevention, it’s difficult for the average citizen to identify mistakes. You could be allowing yourself to be exposed to numerous infectious bacteria and not even know it. You could even be sick and not realize it. An estimated 70% of people carrying Hepatitis C don’t even know they have it. Staph infections and Hepatitis C are not small issues that can be taken lightly – they can kill!
And yet, people are still buying tattoo and piercing kits and practicing on people with no clue as to what they are doing and people are still allowing it to happen. People are getting sick and professionals – the ones doing all the right things to ensure your safety – are the ones taking the blame and suffering the consequences. Their livelihood is being threatened, their reputations are being marred and the art form they love is being degraded every day.
We can’t stop people from selling kits and we can’t round up every scratcher out there that’s putting their clients in danger for the sake of money, but we can spread proper information and teach people the importance of demanding clean and sterile tattoos and body piercings. Please email this article to someone you care about and encourage them to do the same.