Risks of Amateur Tattoos
VANCOUVER – Rose Penny Doiron wanted to do something special for her best friend who was away in England so she decided to have her name, Jennifer, tattooed on her wrist.
Despite already being covered in intricate, colourful body art, Vancouver-based Doiron wanted to make the commemoration to her best friend a special event. So she got another friend to give her a homemade tattoo.
“I wanted her to be impressed when she got back,” said the 24-year-old. “We did it on the floor of my (vintage clothing) shop, over a bottle of whisky, three hours later.”
These non-professional tattoos—known as stick and poke or hand poke tattoos—are done with a sewing needle, thread and India ink.
The thread is wrapped around the needle, dipped in the ink and poked into the skin, one dot at a time. The tattoos often take a painstakingly long time to complete because of the simple tools involved, and therefore are quite basic. (A professional tattoo artist will use an electric gun that has several needles.)
Although every circumstance is different, alcohol is often consumed before and during the procedure.
Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto-based general and cosmetic dermatologist, said she’s removed a significant number of “amateur tattoos” from people between the ages of 15 and 78.
The homemade tattoos concern her and her colleagues because the product and tools that are being used usually aren’t sterile.
“The immediate health risk could be an infection and the second risk would be to traumatizing the skin,” she said. “Also if you’re using an infected needle, you’re looking at the risk of hepatitis and HIV.”
Staph and other skin infections, hepatitis and HIV-AIDS can all be transmitted when skin, needles and blood are involved. These infections can be spread in several ways in an unprofessional setting: using unsterilized needles, not using gloves to tattoo or working in a dirty environment.
Kellett said while the health risks are real with homemade tattoos, so are the consequences.
“It takes one treatment to put this on, it’s going to take multiple treatments to remove it,” she said.
Whitney Gray of Vancouver has five tattoos, all of the stick and poke variety. (One she gave herself while procrastinating from studying.) She said two out of five of them were done while she was drunk.
The 25-year-old said that having her friends give her tattoos has more meaning than spending a bunch of money on something she might regret later.
“I like the idea of having an idea, having your friend being able to execute it for you and I can’t really regret those sort of things,” she said.
When Montreal’s Ben Pobjoy started giving his friends homemade tattoos, he never thought it would become a regular gig.
He and his business partners, who run a design and marketing firm, thought it would be fun to start yet another company, but wanted it to represent their punk roots. Though Michael Jackson Tattoos was meant to be a joke, Pobjoy found himself giving his friends tattoos on a weekly basis.
“(We’ll do them) anywhere where it’s going down,” he said. “We’ll do them from sunrise to sunset, when people have had a few drinks and it’s the weekend.” He said the appeal of homemade tattoos is deep-rooted.
“It emanates from that blood brother pack that everyone has … it’s that tribe mentality,” Pobjoy said.
But the homemade creations don’t sit well with some professional tattoo artists, who have worked hard to change people’s views on tattoos – which used to be associated with criminals and inmates.
Vancouver-based Chad Woodley has been a professional tattoo artist for 15 years. He’s concerned that the risks that come with homemade tattoos will tarnish the image of his industry.
“People maybe don’t understand cross contamination, they might not be careful and they might pass something on to a bud,” he said.
Woodley said many people who give homemade tattoos think sterilizing the tools with alcohol will do the trick. In fact, professional tattoo artists use autoclaves, which clean equipment using a combination of heat and steam.
“With no guidelines out of someone’s house, you don’t really know what each individual is going to do,” he said. “Even in someone’s shop, you don’t know if they’re following the safety procedures, but it’s definitely less likely in someone’s kitchen.”
Woodley said the fact that many hand poke tattoos are done under the influence could change opinions the mainstream public has about tattoos. It’s only in the last decade that professional tattoo artists have become more accepted, he noted.
“Most professionals are working so hard to make (tattooing) an art form, so that it’s respected at least, when it becomes sort of a joke, that’s what people will see it as,” he said.
—From “Some young people decorate with homemade tattoos, despite health risks,” by Elianna Lev, CBC.ca, May 2008.