It used to be that tattoos were rare, seen only on the likes of manly men, men with tree-trunk quads and Popeye forearms, men who wouldn’t dream of eating quiche, men who could let out a burp windy enough to knock over a little lady or two. Tattoos were the stuff of anchors on sailors’ tanned forearms, sexy girls inked on beefy biceps that wiggled and danced when the biceps were flexed, or else “MOM” or “I love you, SaraJo” written in emphatic letters across a hairy chest.
Those days are long gone.
Nowadays, tattoos are as common as cell phones, SUVs, and push-up bras. Ask almost anyone to roll up a sleeve, lift a hem, or bare a belly or buttocks and voila: a dragon, a skull and crossbones, a flower, a Yin-Yang symbol, a Chinese character, a lover’s name enclosed in a heart.
Tattoo art fever in the last decade has come with a price, however: health safety and quality. As in most professions, there are those who are trained and abide by safe and ethical guidelines, and those who do not. Aside from a tattoo that just plain looks bad and fades after only few years, sub-par tattoo practices at their worst include dirty needles or unsanitary equipment that can lead to infections and diseases ranging from HIV and hepatitis B, C, and A to pneumonia, rubella, and measles.
“There are a lot of ‘scratchers’ out there, a lot of people tattooing who have no business going near someone’s skin. It’s no joke,” says Tom Lorenzo, better known as Tattoo Tom, a guest tattoo artist from California who now works at the Blue Coyote. Scratchers are people who give tattoos but have little skill at the art, no proper training or state certification, and in many cases, use less than sterile equipment. They might tattoo out of their home or on the go with a road kit without the necessary equipment to properly sterilize their tools. They might reuse needles on different people. They might just flat out not know what they are doing, ultimately making “hamburger” out of the your skin, which may not heal and may get seriously infected.
“There are lots of people out there who want to make a quick buck or get their foot in the door, so not only do they misrepresent themselves, they also do shoddy and unsafe work,” says Dave Anderson, tattoo artist for more than 20 years and owner of Altered Skin. Anderson, known to friends and clients as Detail Dave, admits that he started as a scratcher, tattooing friends, and friends of friends, and learning by doing without any real training or apprenticeship. “When I started out, there were no state regulations or rules about certification. Now, it’s a different story,” he says. “There are strict guidelines for tattoo artists for safety and health reasons. If the inspector from the Health Department catches wind that you’re secretly tattooing out of your house or using unsafe, unclean equipment, he will track you down.”
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that most states began certifying tattoo parlors and enforcing certain standards and guidelines. In Montana, a bill was passed in 1998 to enforce safe and legal tattooing practices. According to Stan Strom, program manager of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Program for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the bill was spearheaded by legit tattoo artists interested in raising the image of the profession and ensuring the safety of clients. Under the law, tattoo studios are now inspected approximately every year and tattoo artists are required to attend an annual re-certification workshop that includes information on safe practices, disease control, and the danger of blood-born and airborne pathogens.
A study done recently in Texas shows a cluster of people who contracted certain strains of hepatitis and HIV received it from getting tattoos, says Strom, though similar studies have never been done in Montana. “The stricter our guidelines, the better,” Strom says. “It has really helped that the tattoo artists themselves have helped develop—and enforce—these standards and guidelines.” “In this business, you’re only as good as your last tattoo,” says Lorenzo, who owned several tattoo studios in California. “If one or two people leave your shop with a bad tattoo, your reputation can be shot. You have to be careful who you hire, and you have to take the health and safety of your clients very seriously.”
Like any art or skill, mastering tattooing takes knowledge, practice, and experience. “An apprenticeship can run from six months to several years,” says Anderson. “In my shop, an apprenticeship includes straight observation for many weeks and months as well as doing a lot of grunt work and learning everything hands on. Before I certify my apprentices, I give them strict tests on sterilization, needle making, drawing, and tattooing, and I make sure they attend the yearly Health Department workshop.”
A piercer at Altered Skin, who asked not to be named, said he wanted to work in a tattoo shop since he was 15. When asked about his own tattoos, he said he had about 20 to 25 but, like memories, some run together, so the exact number is hard to say. Though he doesn’t have a favorite—“I love them all”—he did say that he had gotten all but two at Altered Skin, where he is familiar with the practices and quality work of the tattoo artists.
Lorenzo, who is all but covered with tattoos and favors the “stairway to hell” design on his back, says that more than 50 percent of the work they do at Blue Coyote are fix-it jobs. “A lot of customers come in and ask us to fix or cover-up a bad tattoo—done by a scratcher, themselves with a pin and a bottle of India ink, or maybe while in prison.”