Safe Tattooing Techniques and the Importance of Using a Licensed Tattooist

What are the best and safest tattooing techniques and why is it important to employ them?  Every tattooists in the world is going to have their own highly coveted opinions, but if that tattooist is not licensed it would be best to ignore their opinion.   Anyone who has successfully fulfilled the requirements necessary to obtain their tattooing license knows that although it may have been a pain in the backside, they now know a great deal more than those who are unlicensed.  State licensing may be a bureaucratic way of collecting government funds, but for  the tattooing industry it provides a clear and practical set of safe tattooing guidelines.

Just about every state has slightly different regulations and guidelines that are required in order to get a tattooing license.   New York City, for instance, worked closely with the tattooing community to hammer out a fundamental and feasible set of regulations for working conditions.  More importantly, they also require tattooists to show proficiency in infection control, utilization of universal precautions as recommended by the federal centers for disease control and prevention and proper methods of waste disposal.  If you would like to learn more about the kind of information a licensed tattooist is required to know you can visit the CDC's website to read their NIOSH Safety and Health Topics, it will help illustrate the difference between a licensed and an unlicensed tattooist.

Why are all of these regulations necessary?  There are two main reasons.  Protection for the public as well as the tattooist.  So, if you are about to get a new tattoo be sure your tattooist has a current tattooing license.  It should be clearly displayed, but if it is not ask to see it.  No matter how good a tattooist's portfolio may look or how great the price is do not trust your health to an unlicensed tattooist.

Generally there is very little blood involved in tattooing, especially when dealing with an experienced, professional tattooist.  Tattooing produces a very superficial wound no worse than a rug burn and they are both treated with basic first aid supplies. That being said, there is some blood involved and certain precautions have to be taken.  Most cities and states that regulate tattooist require them to pass an OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens test.  As tattooists we can drive ourselves crazy trying to go above and beyond what is required and keeping up with the newest piece of tattooing prophylactic that come on the market.  A full body condom and a plastic enshrouded work space is not only impractical but does not guarantee that the tattooist is not spreading infectious diseases, although it may look very impressive.  It is unrealistic to tattoo in a sterile bubble but tattooists should be working in sanitary conditions using only sterile tools.  A common mistake for inexperienced and unlicensed tattooists is that they get this backwards; too much importance is placed on trying to obtain the appearance of sterile working conditions while at the same time using tools, e.g. tattooing needles and tubes, that may be clean but are not sterile.

Here are some basic guidelines to insure safe sanitary working conditions.  A tattooing station or area should have proper waste receptacles and washing facilities.  Work surfaces, tattooing furniture covers and flooring should be non porous.  The work area should be well ventilated.  Only single use sterile needles should be used.  It is good practice to dispose of the needles in a proper sharps container in front of the client at the end of the session. Grips and tubes should be sterilized by use of an autoclave, unless single use disposable types are used.  Single use ink caps should be used.  The tattooists should wash their hands before and after each tattooing session.  The work station including counter tops, lamps, or anything that may have been touched during the tattoo session should be sanitized with a germicide immediately after the session is completed.  While it may not be required that the tattoo machine be covered with some type of single use barrier such as plastic wrap or a bag it is very good practice and an excellent way to keep it free of grime.  The tattoo machine itself and clip cord should be sanitized with a germicide after each use.

Tattooing has come a long way in becoming more socially accepted; however, many negative connotations are still sometimes associated with the trade.  As professional tattooists we should do our best not to perpetuate or contribute to these negative stereotypes.  One of the best ways to do this is to get and maintain a tattooing license, practice proper sanitary/sterilization techniques and stay current with the CDC's NIOSH Safety and Health Topics and OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens lastest information.  Not only will it keep you safe; your clients will intuitively recognize it and appreciate it as well.

Happy tattooing,

Jeremy Garrett a.k.a. NYARTMAN