I’ve been getting tattooed for 4 years now and tattooing for almost two of them. As a native Ontarian, I’m used to having dozens of shops to chose from within an 80km radius. In Toronto, a hour and a half drive from my hometown, there’s reported to be more tattoo shops than there are Starbucks in a 2018 study. The rising interest in getting inked has resulting in a huge industry boom in the late decade. If you can draw or can think you can draw, you too have probably dreamed about being the artist wielding the machine of permanent art dreams. For most of us though, we show up to the appointment eager for the therapeutic hours that await us under the needle.
The experience of being tattooed is now so mainstream that sometimes, and very rarely, you may forget the risks involved with getting a tattoo. That consent form that you sign at the beginning of each appointment, have you been skimming over the risks? Although the chance of a tattoo infection is so low (0.5-6 percent of tattooed adults, to be exact), you still need to be aware of any issues that can occur after your appointment is done and be prepared to reach out to your artist and ask questions if any complications occur.
So you’ve done your research; selecting an artist of your choice at a shop that your friends frequent and they rave about. You show up for your appointment and yeah, looks clean. You get the aftercare instructions but in the following days you notice the tattoo is a bit itchy and swollen. Come the evening, you notice redness and pus oozing from the tattoo. What happened?
The truth is, any number of things could have happened.
There’s three common causes of infection:
1. Poor hygiene standards
If equipment is unsterile or the ink has become contaminated by the artist (improper handling or improper dilution), then bacteria can be introduced into the area. Artists should dilute their inks with sterile water, alcohol, witch hazel or a clear mixing solution available from several tattoo suppliers.
2. Improper Skin Preperation
Before your appointment your skin should be cleaned with soapy water, shaved, then sterilized with alcohol before applying stencil primer and the stencil itself. This should all be done with clean gloved hands. The artist should change their gloves if they become contaminated.
3. Improper aftercare
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve caught a client going swimming after the get a new tattoo, or having the tattoo out in direct sunlight while its still healing. Follow your aftercare instructions carefully and keep your tattoo clean and as dry as possible during the two weeks. Don’t be afraid to send your artist a message if you’re unsure how to protect your tattoo during work or another activity. A simple conversation with your tattoo artist can save you weeks of headache with an infected tattoo.
Common infections include:
A very common, minor strain of bacteria that causes infections in open wounds. Responds well to antibiotics.
Fun fact, in my former life I went to college for the Biotechnology Lab Technician program at Conestoga College. Staphylococcal bacteria were frequently used in our experiments to study under a microscope. I can tell you lots of random facts about biotechnology. As a matter of fact, we had to follow strict hygiene and aseptic protocols in the lab, similarly to how I practice aseptic technique in the studio.
2. Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM)
A minor infection presents as itchy transparent or red patches on the tattoo. Usually occurs from contaminated water used in ink dilution.
3. MRSA or Methicillin Resistant Staphlylococcus Aureus
A more serious, antibiotic resistant bacteria. Can be transferred from skin to skin contact. This is the reason I use either disposable skin markers or clean my sharpie tips with 80% alcohol between use.
4. Viral Infections such as Herpes simplex, Hep B and C, syphilis and HIV.
This group of viruses can only be transferred via blood transfer or blood contact through an open wound. Assuming that all surfaces are clean and have be sterilized, this risk is pretty low in a professional environment.
In New Brunswick, it’s not uncommon to hear stories about friends of friends or your cousins boyfriends brother ordering a tattoo “gun” (whatever that is) off of Wish or Amazon or another unregulated tattoo supply website. I warn anyone who is tempted to go to a friends house to get tattooed avoid it at all costs. In the event you come into contact with any blood on an unclean service, I urge you to be tested.
For tattoo artists and piercers, it’s important that we are vaccinated against Hep B and C. In the event of any needle stick injuries (and it happens), let the wound bleed freely and seek out medical advice immediately.
5. Allergic reactions
Allergic reactions often occur in response to the metals used in the manufacturing process of the ink. Such at mercury sulphide in the red, which is the most common colour to cause an allergy. Another risk is the carbon oxide used in black ink.
An allergic reaction can range from itchy red patches to anaphylactic shock. It’s important to know that it is impossible to predict occurrence of any allergic reaction. Improper treatment of an allergic reaction can lead to other bacterial infections.
For any and all of the above infections, it’s important to remember a few things. First things first, take a deep breath. It’s likely a minor reaction or minor infection. Remember that your tattoo is an open wound and shit happens.
Secondly, book a doctors appointment asap. Ask about any treatments you can purchase over the counter to sooth your wound while waiting for your appointment
Thirdly, message your artist. A good artist will follow up with you with the best intentions and sympathy. Run from the artists that immediately deny cause or place blame on the client. By working with your artist, you can help them understand why the infection occurred and they can reform their practices and/or products to reduce further reactions or infections.
As solo artist and owner at Dark Instinct, I made it a priority to be fully educated in proper routine practices. I’m now twice certified in bloodborne pathogens training. My first certification is a general BBP certification whereas my second is a tattoo artist focused BBP certification. Unfortunately there is only one course of its kind in Canada, and its offered through Jesse Villemiere’s expert training on progressivementorship.ca. You can see all of my certifications hanging proudly at the studio at your next visit.
Remember to research your artists, follow your aftercare and if your tattoo seems to be healing poorly, seek out medical advice.