DOBSON — Public health officials in Surry are concerned that an increase in illegal tattooing could lead to a local spread of diseases.
The problem has grown considerably in recent months, said Environmental Health Director Johnny Easter, particularly thanks to the Internet.
People can easily purchase a tattoo kit — new or used — on websites such as eBay without obtaining a permit. But Easter warns this is not only illegal but also extremely dangerous.
“What we’re really concerned about are the sanitary conditions of where the tattoo is done,” he explained. “Are they reusing needles? Are they reusing tubes?
“Otherwise, you can have hepatitis B and C, blood poisoning and possibly HIV.”
“I don’t know anybody who wakes up and thinks, ‘I think I want to get hepatitis B today,’” said county Health and Nutrition Center spokesman Thomas Williams. “But if things are done properly, your risks are very minimal.”
From a legal standpoint, tattooing without a permit violates public health law. Easter said many of those same individuals are also guilty of violating one particular criminal law: tattooing underage customers. In North Carolina, a person must be 18 years of age before he or she can get a tattoo, no matter the parental consent.
“A lot of teens think, ‘If my mom or dad can sign for me, I can get a tattoo!’ said Easter. “No, you cannot. That’s a criminal offense.”
Tattooing an underage individual is a Class 2 misdemeanor, carrying a maximum sentence of 60 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
To protect themselves from prosecution, many permitted tattoo establishments will file a photocopy of each customer’s driver’s license for proof of age.
But social media such as Facebook and Twitter have made bypassing health and age regulations relatively easy. Individuals purchase tattoo kits and then request volunteers for practice via their social networks.
However, individuals desiring a tattoo must go to a physical establishment, not a home or unrelated business.
“We’re seeing a lot of stuff out there, with people setting up underground tattoo parties,” said Easter. “People are advertising themselves as tattooers. ‘I’ve bought a tattoo kit online. I’m practicing. Come over. I want to start this shop.’ That’s illegal.”
Indeed, searches on Facebook for public posts with the key words “tattoo party,” “tattoo kit” and “free tattoo” revealed an abundance of results.
But one recent tattoo party did not go as planned. According to Easter, a local business “where you would never expect tattooing” hosted a party. The business owner had contacted a mobile artist, asking him to finish a tattoo. The tattooer obliged. But as the artist set up for the procedure, Easter received a complaint. Soon afterward, Easter entered the business and walked in on the customer getting his new, illegal tattoo.
Professional tattoo artists are likewise displeased with illegal tattooing in Surry. Many of these artists go to great lengths to protect the health of their customers. Hence, they do not appreciate illegal tattooers harming their credibility.
“They should be sent to jail,” said Ernesto Rodriguez of Pilot Mountain-based Planet Chaos Tattoos, one of the five permitted tattoo establishments in the county.
“[Illegal tattooing] causes people to get sick. It spreads diseases,” he continued. “That stuff should not be tolerated.”
“It seems like the illegal tattoo artists — based on what we’ve seen — are more concerned about protecting themselves rather than protecting their customers,” said Environmental Health Specialist John Watts. “At the licensed facilities, these regulations are meant to protect the customers. I think, through these procedures, we can teach the legal artists the proper way to protect the public.
“But illegal tattoo artists don’t care that they might transfer hepatitis to someone. They wear gloves to protect themselves. But they don’t really care.”
Easter and Watts stressed they and other public health officials are not against tattooing as long as it is legal.
To receive an annual permit, each tattoo artist must visit the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center in Dobson to place an application with a $125 fee. Watts will then go to the establishment to see if it complies with all of the regulations in his four-page book.
Basically, the regulations are concerned with proper blood-born pathogen precautions and sanitation. They ensure needles are not reused, the autoclave works correctly, chemicals are properly labeled, the area is easily cleanable and the artist consistently washes his or her hands.
Furthermore, Watts can, at any time throughout the year, do a surprise inspection. “We take this very seriously,” he explained.
“We do everything we can to get artists permitted, to get them legal,” said Easter, “because if we cannot get them permitted, there is more of an opportunity for them to go underground.”
Reach Josh Armstrong at 719-1921 or email@example.com.