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Officials decry unlicensed, at-home tattooing

BY KRISTEN PETERS | JULY 16, 2009 7:15 AM

Tattooing without a license is illegal.

The Daily Iowan published an Arts & Culture article Wednesday about home-tattooing that did not fully discuss the act’s legal and health risks.

Local police, health officials, and tattoo professionals told the DI that not only must tattoo artists be licensed by the state, but applying tattoos at home is also very dangerous.

“I can guarantee the risk of infection in a licensed tattoo shop is near zero,” said Doug Beardsley, the director of the Johnson County Public Health Department. “Anywhere else, you’re running a much higher risk.”

There is always a risk of blood-born pathogens in the air when someone is getting a tattoo, he said, but because professional tattoo artists follow state guidelines, the precautions cut out much of what infections the recipient could acquire.

“It’s actually very interesting,” Beardsley said. “Professional tattoo artists are actually at more risk that the people they tattoo. They are following procedures to protect themselves from other people’s blood.”

Common infections when giving or receiving a home tattoo include hepatitis B and C, both which could lead to kidney failure or even death if not treated promptly and correctly, and staph infections, which leads to many doctor visits and lots of antibiotics.

“But we don’t have the numbers on which hepatitis or staph infections are results of tattooing,” Beardlsey said. “People who are getting tattoos in their basement are probably also engaging in other risky behavior.”

Violaters of Iowa’s tattoo laws can be charged with a serious misdemeanor.

Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said charges for at-home tattooing are rare.

Since September 2001, there has been only one charge of tattooing without a permit; it involved the tattooing of a minor in an unlicensed home.

According to Iowa Administrative Code, “No tattoo artist shall engage in the practice of tattooing without first obtaining a tattoo-artist permit from the department.”

Obtaining a license for a professional tattoo shop and artist varies from state to state, but the Iowa Public Health Department requires shop owners to follow specific spatial, plumbing, and lighting regulations.

“Not to mention the sterilization standards,” said Steve Barjonah, the owner of Crossroads Tattoo in Coralville.

Other tattoo artists around Iowa City take personal offense to the act of tattooing in the home.

The owner of Nemesis Studio, Matthew Cooper, said the aesthetic that is reached with a DIY tattoo can be obtained through a licensed professional using sterilized equipment and should not be a motivation in opting for unsafe measures in tattooing.

“I see this sort of do-it-yourself tattooing thing is appalling and disrespectful,” he said. “Tattooing is something I’ve spent years studying and mastering. It’s giving a bad name to professional artists.”


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