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Along the Latex Highway

Getting Pierced or Tatooed Safely

October 2000

The photo that runs with this column is almost three years old. I always thought that picture had a gee-whizzy, high school yearbook quality, which makes me look angelic or saintly. I'm neither. I'm actually kinda eclectic and kinky.

Now I ask you, based on that photo, do I look like someone with a tattoo and pierced nipples? Of course not. I look like a middle-aged elf who's too nice to hang up on telephone solicitors. Regular readers know that I'm really a blunt, angry smart ass, proving once again that looks can be deceiving. I do hang up on telephone solicitors and I do have a tattoo and pierced nipples.

My tattoo (a non-traditional heart with wings) is about five and a half years old. My nipple piercings (10-gauge rings) are a year and half old. I'm fascinated by body art and body piercings. Tattoos and piercings have gone mainstream in the past ten years, adorning all sorts of bodies from rock stars and wrestlers to high school students and urban professionals. They are no longer the domain of sailors or bikers. And nobody's apologizing for them anymore.

Are you thinking about getting a tattoo or body piercing? Or like me, are you thinking about getting more? Well, the good news is that tattooing and body piercing are perfectly safe when done by professionals who are careful to protect their clients from infections. There are risks, however, and you should know them before visiting any body artist. Blood diseases are a potential risk. The hepatitis virus can survive for a long time in open air.

HIV is not as strong a virus, but it is possible to be infected through unsafe body art practices. Body artists must always sterilize (autoclave) their needles and never re-use them. Also important for people living with HIV is the risk of bacterial infections. To avoid them, body artists must keep their shops clean, all surfaces and equipment disinfected and sterilized.

Here are some warning signs that you may be dealing with an amateur body artist:

  • Re-using needles (this is like sharing IV drug syringes with strangers).

  • Re-using tattoo ink (a virus can survive for some time in ink).

  • Used jewelry (you don't know where it's been or if it's been sterilized).

  • Piercing guns (these should ONLY be used for ear piercing and never, ever on any other part of the body).

  • Dirty environment (if shop surfaces are not disinfected, the risk of acquiring a variety of bacterial infections exists).

It's also tempting to save money by letting a friend or relative give you a tattoo or piercing. Don't. These well-meaning folks rarely take full precautions to protect you from infections like hepatitis (liver inflammation and disease) or HIV. The risk of transmitting HIV is relatively small, but possible. But the risk of getting hepatitis B or C from unsafe body art is very real.

When you're ready to choose a body artist, consider the following:

  • Get referrals from trusted friends who have tattoos or piercings and had good experiences with the body artist.

  • If your friends have no referrals, go to the Yellow Pages, make a list, and visit several shops until you find one where your gut isn't screaming "Get out now!"

  • Ask the artist what precautions he/she takes against infection.

  • Check out their work; ask to see the artist's portfolio.

  • Talk to the artist long enough to get an honest sense of your comfort level with him/her.

You should also do a little "shop inspection" of your own. Here are some specific things you should see or ask about during your visit:

  • Sterilizing machine (called an autoclave)

  • Packaged, sterilized needles and tubes

  • Disposable razors for shaving hair from tattoo areas

  • Fresh ink dispensers and disposable ink caps

  • A sink, disinfecting spray bottles and rubber gloves

  • Clean rooms (no pets should be allowed either)

  • New, sterile, surgical steel jewelry selection

  • Evidence of health board approval and a business license

Whether or not to get tattooed or pierced is a highly personal decision. Tattoos are permanent. Imagine yourself 20 years down the road and visualize what kind of body art will mature well along with you. You have a little more flexibility with piercings since you can remove them when you grow tired of them. Just remember that sometimes the holes close up and sometimes they don't. And also keep in mind that these procedures can cause varying degrees of pain and that body artists are not licensed to dispense any kind of medication. (For those of you who are wondering, the answer is no, it didn't hurt to have my nipples pierced, and the tattoo was uncomfortable only because I had to sit still for so long. I have a fairly high threshold for pain.)

It's also extremely important for you to take care of your tattoo or piercing once you leave the body artist's shop. Keep the tattoo/piercing area clean (but don't use peroxide or alcohol because they will delay healing). Avoid swimming pools and hot tubs for at least one week. Don't pick at any scabs that form. Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. In case of an infection or allergic reaction to the ink or jewelry, go to your doctor, return to the body artist, or call your local health department. Any good body artist will provide you with a printed list of information you need to know to prevent infections. Don't leave without written instructions.

For those of us who are living with HIV or hepatitis already, you should also be aware that many body artists now ask you to fill out a detailed questionnaire before they tattoo or pierce you. Often you are asked whether or not you have HIV or hepatitis. Whether or not you choose to disclose this information is between you and your own conscience. However, any professional body artist working with sterilized needles and equipment in a clean environment is likely to understand that there is no risk to either party for transmission of a virus or bacterial infection. And if the body artist refuses to do a tattooing or piercing because you are infected with HIV or hepatitis, try to understand that he/she is operating from a position of fear and ignorance. You can protest, or you can find a more enlightened body artist.

This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
See Also
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10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
Visit Our "Ask the Experts" Forum on HIV Risk and Transmission
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