TATTOOS HAVE been around for much longer than many people realize. The art form has been practiced for centuries by people the world over. To this day, some tribal cultures still use tattooing as rites of passage, symbols of status and rank in a given society, and tokens of religious and spiritual devotion.
The modern tattoo industry is a far cry from ancient tribal tattooing, however. What was seen as taboo to many mere decades ago has worked its way into the mainstream culture of not only the United States, but a great portion of the civilized world. Now, it is quite acceptable for professionals - yes, even doctors and lawyers - to have ink. Nowadays, tattoos are recognized as a form of art. The industry has lost much, though not all, of the taboo previously associated with having tattoos, enabling the industry to flourish in ways that were practically inconceivable in the past.
Nevertheless, with tattoos gaining such popularity in the mainstream, especially among the youth, there exists a growing issue concerning amateur tattoo artists. It is not a new issue by any means, as amateur tattooists - or "scratchers," as they have come to be known colloquially within the jargon of the industry - have been around for a very long time.
T-L Photo / JESSE SCOTT
Corey Cuc of Hot Rod Tattooing in Martins Ferry works on a back tattoo for customer Billie Faulkner. Cuc is one of several professional tattoo artists at Hot Rod who understands the importance of a safe and sanitized working environment.
T-L Photo / JESSE SCOTT
JASON KOVACS, owner of Ink Shack in Lansing, puts some ink into a large chest piece for customer Andrew McCargle. As a professional tattoo studio, Ink Shack is strictly monitored by the Ohio Board of Health in order to maintain a sanitary environment for tattooing.
This feather tattoo was created by John “Sweet Chuck” Schorr, of Hot Rod Tattooing in Martins Ferry.
John “Sweet Chuck” Schorr, of Hot Rod Tattooing in Martins Ferry, concentrates on a design.
Shown is a dragon tattoo done by Schorr.
However, the mainstream popularity which tattoos are attaining, in conjunction with the lack of education within the general public about the tattooing procedure, could eventually develop into quite a horrible situation if it continues to be overlooked and mishandled. Some would certainly argue that such a development has already occurred.
On April 17, the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department issued a press release concerning illegal tattoo operations. The article explains the flux of illegal tattooing in recent years and advises the public to only get their ink from reputable, licensed tattoo studios.
Because tattooing is an invasive procedure which involves rupturing the skin to insert indelible pigments, the ruckus over illegal tattooing revolves around the spread of infections and blood-borne pathogens such as MRSA, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, etc.
Professional tattoo studios are monitored by their local Boards of Health. Their staffs are trained in not only how to do tattoos properly, but also in how to maintain a safe environment for their customers. These establishments generate what is technically medical waste, in the form of used needles, blood-speckled towels, etc. Thus, the proper care must be taken to avoid cross-contamination and the spreading of bacteria and disease within these establishments.
According to the press release from the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, "Tattoo studios are subject to strict requirements related to sanitation, record keeping, needle handling, age limitations and sterilization procedures. Every effort is made to ensure no person-to-person contamination."
Amateur tattooists, however, are not subjected to such regulations. Many of these scratchers work from their homes - basements, garages, kitchens, etc. - or at "tattoo parties", where an unlicensed tattooist (or several) provides tattoos for their guests.
It can be assumed that a majority of these scratchers have had no type of proper professional training in regards to the dos-and-don'ts of the tattooing procedure nor in maintaining a sanitary environment in which to tattoo. Most of them operate under word-of-mouth instructions from other scratchers, by information they have read online or simply by what they have learned through their own experiences.
Without a definitive source of education, many of these scratchers unquestionably have gotten bits (or even quite sizable chunks) of misinformation along the way. Although there are exceptions to every rule, it can be assumed that a majority of amateur tattooists have picked up some bad habits somewhere in their careers, whether in regards to improper or outdated sterilization methods or even the act of tattooing itself. Given that an increasing percentage of illegal tattoo operations are conducted by relatively young, inexperienced, uneducated persons, there is a slew of things that can potentially go wrong.
Local tattoo studios unquestionably recognize the dilemma concerning amateur tattooists. There is not a single legitimate tattoo shop in the Ohio Valley that has not had a customer come in wanting an amateur tattoo covered up by a professional tattooist.
John "Sweet Chuck" Schorr, of Hot Rod Tattooing in Martins Ferry, is one of the more passionate crusaders in the ongoing battle with amateur tattoo operations. In fact, there are certain things within the professional realm of tattooing that Sweet Chuck feels could be improved. In addition to tattooing professionally, Sweet Chuck is the finance committee chairman of the newly-founded Association of Body Art Professionals (ABAP), headed by Patrick McCarthy, of Piercology in Columbus.
Sweet Chuck and his colleagues at the ABAP are actually accomplishing quite a lot in regards to updating the laws surrounding tattoo regulations. Many of these laws were written in the late-1990s by people who had little to no knowledge of the industry, and the industry has changed a great deal since then. Thus, the laws were long overdue for a revamping. The ABAP has been working hand-in-hand with Ohio legislators and health officials in order to update and reinterpret the laws, regarding everything from the types of equipment used in the procedures to what is considered to be a sanitary establishment for tattooing and piercing.
The first issue of 'Body Art Quarterly,' an ABAP publication, states, "One year ago, a committee was formed by the Ohio Department of Health consisting of select health officials as well as representatives from the body art industry in an effort to revise the body art industry rules and regulations for the State of Ohio ... The vast majority of changes implemented related to improper or outdated legal language that many of us recognize as loopholes for less-than-ethical practitioners to manipulate. All updates were intended to improve current practices by raising them to minimum industry standards without placing ridiculous burdens on business owners."
The new regulations in the State of Ohio will go into effect in September, and the ABAP has been asked to hold workshops in order to assist studio owners in meeting these new regulations. While this is a huge step in the right direction as far as professional tattooing is concerned, ensuring that every professional shop is sanitary and operates safely, it does little to curb the problem of illegally operated establishments.
When it comes to illegal tattooing, many shop owners, including Sweet Chuck, believe the problem is rooted in a lack of education, a lack of regulations and a lack of consequences.
"Tattooing probably directly effects 60 to 70 percent of the population," Sweet Chuck said, meaning that about two out of every three people nowadays have a tattoo. "I would say 80 to 95 percent of the population has sex with people who get tattooed. And if you're having sex with people who get tattooed - if they've been exposed to some sort of blood-borne contaminate, then you're going to get that as well.
"There's a hepatitis epidemic in this country, and HIV transmittal is on the uprise - not because of tattooing, but because of lack of education in high schools. Hepatitis and AIDS are hitting teenagers the most; that's the demographic where you see the most blood-borne pathogens on the increase - teenage, heterosexual kids," Sweet Chuck said, explaining that this is also a demographic that tends to get a lot of tattoos.
Sweet Chuck stated that there is a very real concern for the potential spreading of hepatitis and MRSA, even greater than for HIV/AIDS. He explained that while the AIDS virus is rather weak and cannot live outside of the body for very long, other viruses such as hepatitis can survive outside of the body for weeks.
Sweet Chuck explained that the perception of illegal tattooists for maintaining a sanitary environment used to be simply to not re-use tattoo needles, tubes and ink. However, a sanitary tattooing environment must go far beyond these measures. It takes much more than a new tattoo needle to ensure that the tattoo is safe. He explained that there is a very strict process with sterilization chemicals involving active and passive times. It is not just a spray-on-wipe-off procedure. "You have to understand a very real environmental and engineering practice to make sure you're using the chemicals correctly," he said.
"The concern isn't necessarily the needles and tubes anymore, or the pigments," Sweet Chuck said of illegal tattoo operations. "It's the wooden kitchen table that you've worked off of. It's now contaminated for 45 days. So that means that two weeks later if some little kid is eating cereal off that table, then they can contract MRSA or hepatitis. That's where the health department has really started to take notice of things. Kids have been getting sick, not from getting tattooed at tattoo parties, but by being around that environment weeks later.
"I get reports of illegal tattooing regularly, and I always have," Sweet Chuck said. "I turn those into the Health Department, and the Health Department does exactly what they can do, which is not much. They send you a letter; they ask you to stop." Sweet Chuck stated that he also advises those who provide these reports that they should also contact Child Protective Services because if there are children in that environment, the state will be more aggressive in trying to shut down the operation. "That's the only way around this incredible lack of accountability for the unprofessional tattooer."
Sweet Chuck would like to eventually see the State of Ohio set laws more along the lines of how tattooing is handled in California and Canada, where there are severe penalties for doing illegal tattoos.
As he explained, a first offense of illegal tattooing in Canada results in six weeks in jail and a $10,000 fine (usually suspended). A second offense results in six months in jail and a $10,000 fine. A third offense is six months in jail, a heftier fine (around $25,000) and the offender is never allowed to tattoo in the country again, whether professionally or illegally.
Another issue with the regulation of tattoos that Sweet Chuck addressed was with the suppliers of equipment. Currently, anyone can get on the internet and order equipment for tattooing, without being affiliated with a studio. The suppliers do not care to whom they are making sales, as long as they are making money off of what they are selling.
"I feel it should be illegal to own tattoo equipment if you're not a licensed tattooer or involved in an apprenticeship program under a licensed tattooer," he said. "There's all this loophole stuff. People are overlooked. If I'm tattooing in my house and I don't get you to pay me for it, but you give me beer or pills or (other things), then it's not taking payment for a service, and it's not illegal. That has to stop. There has to be a better definition of what payment or compensation for a service is. There has to be licensure for individual practitioners, and therefore, money to allow for the government to go after and have consequences for people that are breaking the law, and there needs to be more money out there for public education (about tattooing)."
Sweet Chuck explained that because the legislative process takes a while to get things into motion (approximately three to five years), then more effort needs to be taken to educate the public in the meantime until new laws can be written and enforced.
"We need to be focusing more on education geared towards 13-to-20-year-olds. If you start that education at 20, it's too late," Sweet Chuck said. "Kids need to learn how dangerous it actually is (to get an illegal tattoo), and how much that danger carries over for the rest of your life and into the lives of the people that are close to you, including the children that you haven't even thought about having yet," Sweet Chuck said.
He explained that getting an illegal tattoo could potentially effect you for the rest of your life. It is not just getting an infection and taking an antibiotic to get rid of it. Likewise, it is not just an issue of getting a poor-looking home tattoo and having to get it covered up or undergoing laser removal.
"(Infection and disease) might be something that you pass onto your kid," he said. "It might mean that you can't kiss your wife on her mouth, or that you have to be very careful about how you have intimate contact with people for the rest of your life, or that you have to disclose it to people when you register your kids for school."
Sweet Chuck said that it is quite difficult to explain this concept to the younger generations, to get them to understand the possible long-term consequences for their short-term decisions. Thus, more effort needs to be made in the way of educating the general public, especially the youth, about the dangers of unprofessional tattooists. Because many do not see the dangers of getting a tattoo from a scratcher, it enables the scratchers to have business. If the people are better educated in this regard, it would effectively stop the problem at its source.
"There's been so much negative publicity about tattooing and piercing lately. There has to be some sort of change started immediately, and the Ohio Department of Health and the legislature for the state recognize that, and they're actually doing something about it," Sweet Chuck said.
Sweet Chuck is by no means alone in his views. Many local tattoo shops echo the same points when broached about the topic.
Jason Kovacs, who owns Ink Shack in Lansing, likewise discussed the epidemic of illegal tattooing.
"As far as 'scratching' goes," he said, "I can honestly say I started that way. But within three to four months, I really pushed hard to get into a shop because I did not want to be labeled as a scratcher. Even after I was in a shop, it takes a long time before you're comfortable with a lot of the situations that can be thrown at you. Everybody's skin is a little different. You get a scratcher who doesn't know that stuff - they're either digging way to hard and blowing lines out, or they're not getting (the ink) in at all."
Kovacs explained that many reputable tattoo artists across the nation actually started as scratchers. In decades past, there were even fewer regulations than now governing what was and was not okay as far as legal tattooing, and consequences for illegal practices were practically non-existent. However, the industry has seen such a recent expanse that amateur tattooing and the potential spread of diseases and infection is becoming a real problem, not only in the Ohio Valley, but across the entire country.
"You have two different kinds of scratchers," Kovacs said. "You have someone who is just starting out and wants to make a career out of it. Then you have the other types, which are the dangerous ones. They're doing it to get alcohol, drugs, (etc.). I'm not saying all of them are that way, but (some of them) have no future goal of trying to get into a shop, and those are the ones I have a problem with.
"I just don't understand why these (scratchers) would want to do that and not try to work their way into a shop," he said, explaining his opinion on why some scratchers have no aspirations of pursuing a career in a professional setting. "It's one of a few things: A) They're really messed up on drugs; B) Their talent isn't good enough to get them into a shop; or C) They're not confident enough."
Kovacs also summed up the double-edged-sword of tattooing's increase in popularity over recent years. He stated that the good side of it is that tattoos have been taken out of the "smoky, barroom atmosphere" and are now recognized and appreciated as a clear-cut form of art. Having a tattoo is no longer a irrefutable badge of delinquency. Doctors, lawyers, and others in a professional setting are getting covered in tattoos nowadays. While some of the taboo on ink-work is still present in older generations, the overall public perception has unarguably undergone a dramatic shift.
The downside as Kovacs explained, however, is an increase in the public's perception of the supposed ease of tattooing, as if the procedure is something anyone can do. Kovacs stated that certain reality shows, such as Miami Ink and Tattoo Nightmares, have further perpetuated this misconception.
"People watch this, and it's all edited. And they think, 'Oh, I could do that.' Then they start doing (stuff), and that just creates headaches for guys who do work at shops. This stuff is walking through the door and they want you to fix it, and some of it is just unfixable. People think everything can be covered up," he said.
Kovacs explained that an improperly done tattoo can be quite difficult to fix or cover up. After all, the ink used in tattooing is indelible, with the only current "erasing" option being laser removal treatment, which is very expensive and can take years to complete, depending on the size of the tattoo and the quantity and hue of the ink in the skin. There is also no guarantee that the final results will "erase" the tattoo completely.
"I have seen very few scratchers that are artistically capable," Kovacs said, explaining that a majority of amateurs cannot produce the quality of work that comes out of most professional studios. "And the quality of your ink (that you get) is basically going to categorize you," Kovacs said. "I've seen some really bad stuff come through here."
There is still a lot of taboo in regards to bad tattoos, including the quality of the work, the location of the tattoo (facial tattoos are still highly frowned upon) and what is actually being depicted. Essentially, it is much more socially acceptable to be covered in beautiful, professionally done tattoos than to have multiple pieces that look as though they were done by an amateur.
Kovacs also discussed the dangers of infection and disease that going to a scratcher could possibly pose. "People understand (the dangers)," he said, "but it's like everything else - if you can't see it, it's not that frightening to you. Hepatitis and AIDS are very, very real, and these people that are scratching aren't even taking any type of blood-borne pathogen (classes) or anything to really educate themselves on the things that could go wrong, what you could be spreading."
He explained that this is a sort of under-the-radar problem at the moment, and that people are not going to start taking notice of it until the local area is substantially effected. He expressed concern that if that happens, people might overcompensate and want to shut down legitimate tattoo shops, which would be incredibly unjust to those within the industry who are making a living by tattooing in a safe environment.
"If you're educated and you've gone through an apprenticeship and have been taught the right way, you can almost completely eliminate any chance of cross-contamination or anything like that," he said.
Kovacs also addressed the issue with the distributors and suppliers of tattoo equipment, explaining that it is one of the areas of the law that, if changed, could possibly make a big impact in curbing the amateur tattoo epidemic.
"These people are able to get stuff now," he said. "It used to be (that) if you weren't working in a shop, you weren't getting supplies. But now, everybody sees this boom, and businesses are wanting to jump on. So these people who have no experience can get online and order anything. The quality of the equipment isn't what we can get, which holds them back a little bit, but it just kind of opens Pandora's box for everybody to try it."
There are obviously many areas where improvements can be made, both with state and federal laws. Because tattoos are regulated by the Board of Health, every state tends to handle it a little bit differently in regards to the federal and state laws and what each state's health department is capable of doing within their jurisdiction.
"I don't ever see a time where (tattooing) is going to go back to the smoky, barroom-type thing. Something needs to happen," Kovacs said in regards to the need to change the law. "Sweet Chuck and those guys, I think they're doing a good job. The health department doesn't necessarily understand what tattoo shops are about or their processes. Having a board to represent us is great. They're bringing some knowledge into this rule-making, and that's crucial."
The fact is that tattooing is here to stay. It has become an undeniable part of contemporary culture in the Ohio Valley, in the United States and around the globe. Currently, there is much that is up in the air in regards to tattooing laws and how to best deal with the issue of unlicensed tattoo artists and the possible spread of disease and infection in a non-professional setting. In any case, there will certainly be a lot of changes made in the coming years.