News Column

'Home' Tattoos Illegal, Unhealthy, Experts Warn

Aug 27, 2012

Sue Loughlin

Unlicensed or "home" tattooing is both illegal and "very dangerous," according to the Vigo County Health Department.

Despite the risks, health officials hear that the practice is happening a lot, enough that they want to raise public awareness.

"It's illegal to have a tattoo parlor in your home and do it yourself without a license," said Sydney Elliott, health department media coordinator.

Tattoo artists, and their tattoo businesses, must have licenses from the health department.

More importantly, home tattooing also can be dangerous, said Marci DeBoy, environmental health specialist with the Vigo County Health Department.

People who get so-called "home" tattoos from unlicensed individuals are at risk of such communicable diseases as hepatitis, HIV and MRSA. It's unlikely tattooing equipment is properly sterilized in unlicensed settings, DeBoy said.

People often get home tattoos "to save some money," Elliott said.

It's easy to buy the equipment online or elsewhere.

The health department hears about the problem primarily from licensed establishments, DeBoy said. "They have people come in with a tattoo that someone has given them from a home or garage or whatever" and want the licensed artists to "fix" a bad tattoo. Some of the people with home tattoos might be developing a skin infection.

It's difficult to track down those doing the illegal tattooing, DeBoy said. "It's hard to get information out of people. They'll come in and they don't want to rat the person out."

Those considering a tattoo should:

n make sure that both the artist and tattoo establishment are licensed.

n ask to see the artist's portfolio and work they've done.

n observe how the tattoo artist prepares to administer the tattoo. Needles should be single-use and packaged, and the client should be able to see the tattoo artist remove the needle from the package.

Equipment that is reused such as metal tubes or clamps "will be sterilized in bags like you would see in any dental office or hospital," DeBoy said. Reusable equipment should be sterilized in a special machine called an autoclave.

"Ask questions. If in doubt, don't get the tattoo," DeBoy said. "Tattoos are permanent, so don't rush into it if you feel uncomfortable about who is doing it or where they are doing it at."

Someone who wants a tattoo should not be getting it out of someone's garage, house or porch, she said. "Those are red flags."

Chris Johnson, a tattoo artist at Eternal Ink at 1617 S. Seventh St., said that the illegal tattooing "happens quite a bit."

People will come in with poorly done tattoos, and on occasion, they may have an infection.

He believes the economy is causing more people to turn to unlicensed "home" tattooing. At Eternal Ink, the base price is $40 and it goes up from there. A typical tattoo might cost between $60 to $180.

Someone will say, "My friend has a tattoo gun. I trust him and he can draw really good," Johnson said.

Supplies are easy to get, he says. "I pick up a lot of my supplies on eBay."

He uses single-use, plastic disposable tubes and one-time-use disposable needles. "There is a new tube and new needle for every customer," he said. He's been a tattoo artist for 41/2 years.

Johnson said he constantly uses Facebook to try to make people aware of the dangers of home tattooing.

He's had to learn about blood-borne pathogens, and he was recently certified in waste disposal, required by Eternal Ink's new biohazard company.

Often, people who do it out of their house say they don't want to be part of an industry or they do it for the love of doing it and they don't do it for money, Johnson said.

"What they don't understand is that there are people out there like me [and coworkers for whom] this is our only line of work. This is what we do to pay our bills," he said. "They are taking money out of our pockets."

Those who do it professionally in Terre Haute "took the appropriate measures, got apprenticeships, took the tests, paid the money, got approved. We know what we are doing," Johnson said.

Yet, "There are tons of people cutting the corners" and potentially putting the public in danger, he said.

For those who want a tattoo but don't have a lot of money, he recommends they save until they can get exactly the kind of tattoo they want -- at a licensed establishment.

DeBoy said those doing unlicensed tattooing can be reported to the health department. "We will take complaints, and they can be fined if they are not licensed," she said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or

Tattoo timeline for Vigo County

Here is a timeline of regulation involving tattooing in Vigo


--In 1999, the Vigo County Board of Commissioners signs county ordinance regulating tattooing. The ordinance takes effect Jan. 1, 2000.

--In May 2006, the county amends the ordinance changing wording from tattoo parlors to body art establishments and from owners to operators of such establishments, requiring operators provide more training.

--In December 2008, the Vigo County Health Department holds at least six public meetings , most attended by body art operators and body artists.

--In November 2009, the Vigo County Board of Commissioners adopts an amended ordinance with changes from the meetings, including requiring body artists to be at least 18 years old; requiring county licensing of both artists and establishments; prohibiting piercings of genitals of minors; and prohibiting tongue splitting, scarification and branding.

Source: (c)2012 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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