Ink-fection: Tattoo safety is serious stuff

Hepatitis. HIV. If you're not careful about who gives you a tattoo, you could come home with more than just ink under the skin.

Jackie Rice of Big Dawg Tattoos fears some studios aren't as clean as they should be– and that customers don't realize they're putting their health at risk.

"Most customers have no idea that tattooing is even regulated," she says.

In fact, says Rice, tattoo studios became regulated by the Virginia Board for Barbers and Cosmetology in February of this year, and tattoo studios are required to display their state licenses in the reception area.

And for good reason, according to a 2001 study by a researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. The study found that people who had received a tattoo in a commercial tattoo parlor were nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than the general population.

And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have yet to conclude that tattooing directly leads to this deadly disease, the state of Virginia isn't waiting. State licensure requires that instruments be sterilized in an ultrasonic unit or autoclave; that inks and dyes be placed in a single-use disposable container; and tattooers must be vaccinated for Hepatitis B and pass an examination for licensure.

Meeting those basic requirements is not enough, says Rice.

"There's a plethora of ways to spread disease," she explains. "People don't realize. We bag our machines, bag our bottles, cover all our surfaces, and then everything is sprayed down with an approved virucide, stronger than what they use in hospitals."

Both Rice and Ben Miller of Capital Tattoos say it's crucial that tattooers also receive blood-borne pathogen training, so they don't make mistakes like dipping a needle directly into ink that has been used on another customer.

"You should never get a tattoo from someone who doesn't have blood-borne pathogen training," says Miller, who's been a tattoo artist for 12 years.

If the studio is operating within regulated guidelines, however, the health risk from a tattoo is minimal, says Dr. Greg Gelburd, a local family practitioner.

"Hepatitis and HIV won't happen," he says. "It's the same as going to a dentist or a physician or an acupuncturist."

Gelburd says he has seen a few patients with an allergic reaction to the ink in a new tattoo, though the reaction can generally be treated with steroids.

He points out that risks from a tattoo (or a piercing) exist after the customer leaves the studio, and avoiding complications such as infection depends on the individual taking proper care of what is essentially a wound.

Rice and Miller hope that people will investigate whatever studio they use to ensure a happy, healthy result.

"We're all really concerned about this," says Rice.


To view all licensing requirements, or to check the license of a tattoo studio or artist, go to Hint: search by name, since some local individuals and businesses use legitimate licenses from cities other than Charlottesville.


Jackie Rice of Big Dawg Tattoos has been a tattoo artist for five years and a licensed piercer for three.