Tattoos and body piercings are popular forms of self-expression.
In Columbia County, the board of health wants to make sure establishments offering tattoos and piercings do so in a clean, safe environment.
Six shops in Columbia County operate under a county Body Art Ordinance that regulates sanitary and safety procedures, said county Health Department Environmental Health Specialist Andrea Frazier.
“Everyone is in compliance,” Frazier said, though semiannual inspections haven’t yet started in accordance with the ordinance.
This type of body art comes with inherent health risks for both the client and artist. With proper precautions, like those required by the ordinance passed last year, those risks are minimized.
Problems arise when people get tattoos or piercings in unsterile environments such as hotel rooms, garages and private homes.
“It happens all the time,” said tattoo artist Philip Jacobs, who owns Allegiance Ink Tattoo on Washington Road in Martinez.
Jacobs said he and other artists are often called upon to fix poorly-done tattoos done by amateurs.
But bad artwork is minor compared to the health risks involved in going to undercover tattooists, some of whom peddle their skills through online listing services.
“Any type of severe skin (problems are possible) ... from something as basic as a skin rash or a skin infection to a serious blood-borne infection,” Frazier said. “Any type of blood-borne infection can come from a contaminated needle,” including hepatitis and HIV.
Because needles are involved, artists and shop owners are extremely careful for their own sake as well as for their clients.
“They are at risk, too,” Frazier said of artists. “So they are very concerned with universal precautions.”
Frazier said the county’s shops were already practicing good sanitary practices before the ordinance went into effect last year.
The ordinance requires sterilization of equipment and work spaces. It also mandates that artists and owners undergo training, including sessions focusing on first aid and blood-borne diseases.
“Every time somebody walks in here, are they putting their life in my hands,” Jacobs asked. “No. Are they putting their health in my hands? Yes.”
Jacobs said he has no problem with the sterilization requirements, which are just good business practices for a risky industry.
“This is a real legitimate business, and we’re impacting people’s lives,” Jacobs said. “We’re not impacting people’s lives for a week or two weeks or three weeks. It’s for the rest of their lives.”
Jacobs said he takes extra steps to ensure he and his artists practice safe and sanitary methods.
“It takes 10 extra minutes to make sure nothing bad happens to somebody,” Jacobs said. “When somebody walks in here, I know exactly what we’ve done to prepare, as far as staph infection, anything like that.
“I 100 percent know what we’ve done as a business, as a shop, each individual person.”
It’s the artists without permits who worry Jacobs. he said he’s seen photos of someone getting a tattoo from an artist who wasn’t wearing gloves.
The risk in going to an unlicensed artist is the unknown, said Leslie Lanier, a state environmental health specialist in the county.
“If they are doing it out of their home, you don’t know if they have the right kind of equipment ... or what equipment they are using and what they would require to sanitize that equipment,” Lanier said.
In addition to sterilization practices and training, the ordinance requires all artists to be permitted. State law also prohibits tattoos and piercings for those under 18 without parental consent.
It also bans implants and other procedures that require medical equipment, such as scalpels and derma-punches. Tattooing or piercing also can’t be done by, or on, anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“The main thing is, if Johnny comes home and he’s got a tattoo or a piercing and mom and dad don’t know where he got it from,” Frazier said, “once they get (the information) out of him, they can call and file a complaint.”
“We just want them to go to a permitted establishment.”