A local tattoo shop says it's noticing a disturbing trend: more people coming into the shop with badly botched tattoos they had done by an unlicensed artist. The health department admits it's a persistent problem, and cracking down on unlicensed artists is no easy task.
Shane Warnke's been a tattoo artist in Iowa for over 13 years, but he says that some 60 percent of his business isn't creating art, it's fixing botched tattoo jobs on people who got inked by an unlicensed artist.
"People are always going to want tattoos, but they can't afford it. So instead of coming in here and paying hundreds of dollars for a tattoo, they're going to go to their buddy's house, give him $20 and a six pack of beer, and he'll tattoo you all night long," Warnke, owner of Captain's Quarters Tattoos, said.
Warnke even admits before he became an artist, he got an in-home tattoo. The job was bad enough, he's since covered it up. Looking back, that experience makes him cringe.
"They had needles they'd used on other people sitting in a sauce pan in boiling water on the stove, and I remember asking, 'What's the purpose of this?' They said, 'I'm sterilizing everything.' You now, I know now that that ain't going to do nothing," said Warnke.
Of course, a rise of in-home tattoo artists means Warnke loses business. But he's more worried about the public health risk. That's why he's reached out to the mayor and health department hoping to raise awareness of the problem.
"At an in-home tattoo place, we have no idea about the cleanliness. We don't know what their needle procedure is. Are they reusing them? Are they cleaning needles? The risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis is much greater," said Eric Heinen with the Black Hawk County Health Department.
Heinen's seen far too many photos of tattoo jobs that look like they were done with an ink pen. Ultimately, what started to be a cheap tattoo can turn out to be very costly.
"If you get a bad tattoo, and let's say you do contract hepatitis from it, you're looking at a lifetime of drugs you have to take, certain precautions you have to take, and that costs money. And if you would've just done it right the first time, then all that money throughout the years, you could've saved," said Warnke.
Trouble is, it's very hard to catch unlicensed tattoo artists. The health department is always doing inspections, and investigating leads on unlicensed artists, but locally no arrests have been made.
"We often don't have the person's last name, and a lot of these people are transient, too. They come by, there's a party that night, and then they're gone," Heinen said.
It's reason to realize in-home tattoos are not safe, and to take a hard look at a tattoo artist's qualifications and their licensing before making what could be a permanent mistake.
Currently, anyone caught doing tattoos in Iowa without a license can be charged with a serious misdemeanor. Warnke thinks stiffer penalties are needed to help prevent unlicensed tattooing.
Read tips from the Iowa Department of Public Health on tattooing here.
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