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POLL: Tattoo Art or Cleanliness - What's More Important?

Cuyahoga and Summit county health departments offer tips on tattoo safety.

What do you spend more time on? Picking the artist that totally gets your artistic intention or one that works at a super hygenic shop?

Yeah, I know what the answer is. But don't brush off the importance of a clean shop. You should choose a shop that uses universal precautions to prevent skin infections or blood-borne pathogens. There's nothing cool about skin infections. 

Here's why: A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that the ink a New York artist was using exposed his customers to a rash that was hard to get rid of. Turns out the manufacturer used distilled instead of sterile water. In another rash outbreak, artists were cleaning needles between colors with distilled instead of sterile water. 

The rinsing practice caught the attention of Stacey Short, RS, MPH Epidemiology Program Manager with Cuyahoga County. And while there have been no outbreaks in Cuyahoga or Summit counties like the ones cited in the study, the information was helpful to inspectors who conduct annual, unannounced inspections.

Artists probably use the distilled water because unlike tap water that is often chlorinated, it doesn't affect the color of the ink. And although tap water is probably safer than distilled for the same reason, Short said, they should use sterile water.

Health Departments Approve Tattoo Shops

Every establishment that tattoos people has to be approved by a health department to operate according to Ohio law.

How do you know whether they're approved? Ask the shop or call your local health department. The shop is supposed to display their approval document prominently -- just like your hair stylist displays their license on the wall of the salon. 

Mary Merrie, owner of , does her best to educate consumers when they visit her Stow shop. 

All the artists in her shop show new customers step by step the process and they open up the sealed equipment in front of the customer.

"I think that people are becoming more aware of their own personal safety and they are not intimidated to ask questions they want answered," Merrie said.

These safety tips come from Tom Edwards, an Environmental Health supervisor at the Summit County Public Health department:

  • A sink at every station so the artist can wash their hands before they put on gloves. And hand-washing should happen frequently.
  • No food, drinks or cigarettes in the artist working area.
  • No pets in the shop.
  • Supplies that are either disposable or gets sterilized in an autoclave.
  • Make sure the shop is using approved inks. 
  • Make sure the shop isn't recycling ink used for a previous customer. 

Health Department Tattoo programs: 

Cuyahoga County Board of Health Tattoo and Body Piercing Program

Summit County Tattoo and Body Piercing

Lake County General Health District Tattoos/Body Piercing

Susan Ruiz Patton August 28, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Thanks for the recommendation, Sarah. Feel free to share photos of your tattoos as well if you are so moved. Just click on "Upload Photos or Videos" above.
Amanda Harnocz August 28, 2012 at 05:25 PM
I wish I had asked more questions when I got my first tattoo in college. Thankfully everything was OK.
Jonny Endres August 28, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Normally this should not be an issue. It is not very often that a very good and devoted tattoo artist would work at or operate an unhygienic shop. Typically the skill, both technical and artistic, of the artist goes hand-in-hand with the cleanliness of the business and knowledge of potential health risks. I go to Empire Ink in Akron where some of the best artists in the area are, I feel like a surgery could safely be performed there (hyperbole implied, but not by much).
Lauren Spector August 28, 2012 at 09:49 PM
That's where I got my tattoo. I like that place. I like that the tattoo artist is awesome and the place is clean.
Kathy Adult August 29, 2012 at 09:56 AM
7 out of 8 at G&G. Wouldn't think of going anywhere else.

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