State News

May 25, 2014

Underground tattoo artists frustrate officials

— The work of tattoo artists whose living rooms double as body art studios might come cheap, but experts say the unsterile -- and illegal -- work environments could leave clients in pain long after the initial sting of the needle subsides.

Richmond County, which is home to 15 licensed body art studios and about 82 artists qualified to work in them, struggles to squash these illegal operations, said Randy Wishard, the county manager for environmental health.

The health department is responsible for conducting regular inspections of tattoo parlors and issuing permits to artists, but lately it seems to stay one step behind the illegal operations, Wishard said.

“We always get calls after the fact,” he said.

The operations are a cause for concern, Wishard said, because clients of the illegal businesses run the risk of contracting hepatitis or a staph infection, he said, largely due to the use of unsanitary equipment.

“When people are doing these things in a hotel room or at an apartment complex or a kitchen, you have no idea what’s going on,” Wishard said.

In Richmond County, licensed tattoo artists are required to complete training in wound care, CPR and blood-borne pathogen prevention, Wishard said. Permits issued by the department are valid for a calendar year, and studios must pass regular inspections to maintain their licenses.

Recent, more stringent changes in the city code on tattooing have been largely welcomed by the body art community, Wishard said.

“(Enacting the code) was not a hard process because we had so much buy-in with them because they were wanting this to run the riff raff out,” he said. “Now there is a code to try to contain those who want to do right and raise their standards and then run the other people away.”

But, underground artists still operate in the area.

On May 10, Augusta resident Charlotte Middlebrook told Richmond County sheriff’s deputies that within the past three months, someone tattooed the letter “K” on her 17-year-old daughter’s stomach, according to an incident report.

The teen said she didn’t know the man’s identity but lived in an apartment behind Regency Mall.

Under Georgia law, it is illegal to tattoo someone younger than 18. Violators can be charged with a misdemeanor.

The penalty for operating without a license is a maximum $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail, at the discretion of a magistrate judge, Wishard said.

“It makes me mad,” Middlebrook said Saturday. “What if one of their daughters came home with their bodies all marked up? You feel like someone violated them.”

Middlebrook, who didn’t get a tattoo until she was 33, said she wasn’t opposed to her daughter getting one, but would have preferred she go to a reputable parlor with proper licensing rather than a “backyard shop.”

Middlebrook thinks Richmond County officials should crackdown on the issue before it gets out of hand.

“I feel like if they get caught, they should pay the cost of doing stuff like this,” she said. “When you crackdown on it, that’s when you’ll see the difference.”

John Guanlao, a 17-year veteran of tattooing and the owner of Immaculate Ink Custom Tattoo, said he cringes at the thought of someone using their apartment as a studio. He said his studio sanitizes the entire shop at least twice a day.

“Anybody who is a legitimate artist would not be tattooing at their house,” he said.

The goal of the health department isn’t to throw people in jail, Wishard said. The department will try to work with artists in an effort to make sure they meet the code.

“We wouldn’t say that if they had a three-bedroom house or a four-bedroom house that they couldn’t convert one of the bedrooms, but it’s got to meet the code,” he said.

Guanlao said he believes people, particularly minors who would be turned away at the door of a reputable shop, frequent underground artists in an attempt to save money.

“I think people just don’t want to pay the standard price of a tattoo shop just like some people prefer to fix the mechanics on their car rather than take it to the dealership,” he said.

Roy Morrow, who co-owns Lucky 7 Tattoo in downtown Augusta, said he often catches minors who use fake identification cards to get tattooed. He says underground artists can often offer lower prices due to their lower operating cost.

The cheapest tattoo machine in Morrow’s shop cost about $300, not including accessories. The machine, along with accessories, are run through a $1,000 autoclave, which essentially pressure cooks parts for 55 minutes to sanitize the equipment.

Most machine vendors require artists to send a business license and a permit before completing a transaction, he added.

Underground artists, however, are still able to get their hands on secondhand equipment.

“These guys will order ink from China and it’ll be tainted,” Morrow said. “The machines are $30 knock offs of the actual good machines that you would get from a reputable machine builder.”

Morrow said it’s going to be difficult to get rid of all rouge tattoo artists.

“It ain’t going to go away,” he said. “In the old days, when they figured out that somebody was tattooing out of their house, they used to go break their hands. We don’t do that anymore, but that’s kind of what needs to happen.”

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