Professionals in Honolulu urge tattoo seekers to think before they ink

Health / In the state of Hawaii, it’s illegal for anyone other than a licensed professional, working in a professional studio, to work as a tattoo artist. There are potential health risks involved, and tattooing is an especially easy way to transmit communicable diseases–like hepatitis, HIV, HPV and tuberculosis–when proper health guidelines aren’t followed. Licensed tattoo artists are required to take courses on blood borne pathogens, as well as the proper protocol for setting up, tearing down and sterilizing their studio or work area.

However, tattoo machines, needles, inks and other supplies, can be purchased by, well, anyone with enough money to buy them. A person doesn’t need a license to purchase a tattoo gun, nor do they have to be educated on subjects like sterilization or blood borne pathogens. A person doesn’t even need to be 18.

“There are a number of places that people of any age can purchase equipment and have it in their hands,” says Tattoo Hawaii’s Peggy Sucher, a tattoo artist of 30-plus years and a health instructor for the Alliance of Professional Tattooists. “I don’t care if the person is 30 years old. If they don’t understand the principles behind tattooing and the safety issues involved, it can be a deadly process.”

The lack of regulations surrounding the sale of tattoo equipment puts tattoo guns right in the hands of the “scratchers,” or the hacks of the body art industry. Scratchers are the people who will tattoo any willing person for a seemingly irresistible price, the whole of which is really paid for by having to live with a shitty tattoo for the rest of ones days. We’ve all seen them; the half-assed, faded, squiggly-lined, back-room toddler drawings that look like they belong more on a refrigerator than on a forearm. But the visual results of poor quality tattooing are a small inconvenience compared to a lifetime of health-related issues due to hepatitis or some other communicable disease.

Dr. Alan Tice, an internist at Queens Medical Center specializing in communicable diseases, treats patients for all kinds of ails, chief among them–hepatitis. He agrees on the importance of good standards and education for tattoo artists as well as the education of their clientele. Tice has also seen cases of communicable diseases contracted through tattooing firsthand. “I know of cases, a lot of cases actually. It’s not as frequent as injection drug use, but I clearly see it coming from tattoos. No question about it.”

Hardly Skin Deep

The glamorization in recent years of tattooing via reality television shows has induced an explosion of popularity, while simultaneously making the practice (formerly a back-room subculture) mainstream cool. It has also flooded the industry with a plethora of not-so-reputable inkers.

“When I first started getting tattooed, you got tattooed because you wanted to be different,” says Mike Ledger, an Oahu artist of both ink and canvas who boasts over 20 years of tattooing experience. “Nowadays, because of the popularity of it, the stigma is reversing. ‘I want to be the cool kid; I want to get those sleeves’ is the mentality. Whereas when I got it done, I wasn’t the cool kid. I was definitely walking that different path.”

Ledger wants to see tattooing preserved as both an art form and as a profession for the next generation of tattooists, not exploited as a bandwagon movement by trendsetters. “People see tattooing–especially when they put it on TV–and these tattooists on TV are buying Rolexes and Escalades in cash. These shows came on TV, and a lot of people got involved in tattooing that had nothing to do with tattooing other than trying to make a profit off of it.”

Notwithstanding their mainland popularity, tattoos have been a part of Polynesian culture for over two centuries. Even the word tattoo–a result of Englishmen mispronouncing the Samoan word “tatau”–originated in the Islands. It goes without saying that to this day people in Hawaii and all over the Pacific consider tattooing a mainstay in cultural bonding and showing pride in their heritage.

Ledger continues, “Tattooing has been a big part of Polynesia, but also the people that were doing it were very well-respected members of the community. And I think nowadays, being a tattooist, you have a tremendous amount of responsibility. Before you pick up that machine, it’s your responsibility to learn about what you’re passing onto people, it’s not just a tattoo.”

Body art may no longer be privy to subcultures, but for those who freeze memories in ink, they’re forever reminded of a significant time or event in their life; a whim or an ideology that they felt needed to be embedded deeply–and unfortunately, sometimes not so deeply–beneath their skin.