As seen in the "Tracy Press", August 12, 2004
Though local tattoo shops say they go the extra mile to make sure everything is clean, they would also welcome legislation regulating their business. Above, Ocean Hardy, from Forever Yours, works on a tattoo for Hank Johnson on Tuesday.
Clean Tools: Jon Highland, owner of 12 Monkeys Tattoo shop on Central Avenue, takes some tools out of an autoclave machine Tuesday.
If it weren't for the tattoo patterns on the walls and the pierced and inked men in charge, a visitor to the 12 Monkeys tattoo shop might think he was at a doctor's office.
Between customers Tuesday, the air in the Central Avenue shop was sharp with disinfectant, and ultrasonic cleaning machines hummed next to an autoclave in a tiny white sterilizing room in back.
"We have this stuff, it's liquid death," said shop owner Jon Highland, holding up a spray bottle of medical-quality germicide simply labeled "Death."
Having such supplies on hand is up to Highland. Even though California is notorious for strict business regulations, the state has virtually no rules specifically for tattoo shops.
Most of the supplies he buys could be found in a doctor's office - tongue depressors, plastic wrap and gloves, and sterilizing supplies and equipment.
Highland said he and his tattoo artists wrap in plastic the tools, supplies and surfaces around customers who are getting inked.
He doesn't let anyone eat or drink in his shop, and employees don't answer phones unless they first take off their gloves and wash their hands.
"You have to go above and beyond for your customers, if not for your own safety," Highland said.
State law makes it illegal to tattoo or pierce anything but the ears of a customer who is under 18 without parent permission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has general rules for dealing with blood in the workplace. But beyond that, tattoo shop protocol is left to the industry's professionals and their associations.
Other states, and even some counties, have health-department rules and inspections for tattoo and piercing shops. Both procedures make customers bleed, thus creating the risk of transmitting blood-borne disease like AIDS or hepatitis C.
"Currently, there are no regulations written to require inspections," said Kasey Foley, county environmental health specialist. The health department does investigate health-related complaints, but typically it gets complaints from ear piercers, which it cannot investigate because they are exempt from existing and proposed regulations.
Right now, tattoo and piercing operations have to register only with the county.
Foley said only two of Tracy's four tattoo shops are registered. There are no requirements or penalties related to the registration requirement, but Foley said the two not on the list would get a friendly reminder letter from the county.
The lack of regulation in California isn't for want of trying. The California Conference of Local Health Officers submitted a long list of sanitation and safety standards for tattooists and piercers in 1998, but the document has languished in state bureaucracy ever since. The detailed recommendations cover everything from the material of the floors and walls to staff training and sterilization procedures.
California Department of Health Services spokeswoman Lea Brooks said the state created a task force to revisit the proposed requirements last year.
"There is no time estimate as to when they will become law," said Brooks, noting that any final regulations would be subject to a public comment period before being taken up as legislation.
Tracy's tattoo shops, for the most part, say they'd welcome additional oversight. The owners say they are also at least a half-dozen underground artists operating out of their homes.
"I wish they would.
Everybody'd be shut down," said John Perry, owner of Pins and Needles tattoo and piercing shop on 11th Street. Perry said he had a dentist cousin advise him on his sanitation setup, which inlcudes a new autoclave and separate clean room being built in the back of the shop.
Razer Finnegan, a former 12 Monkeys artist who opened his own Living Ink shop on Larch Road six months ago, said the current system works because shops that have high standards keep customers' health and safety expectations high. More regulation would just increase costs and hassle, he said.
"There are plenty of requirements, but they're just not enforced," he said. "And who's going to do the enforcement? You've got to have the bodies to do it."
Over on 11th Street, the tiny Forever Yours parlor is more cramped and less plastic-covered than Central Avenue's 12 Monkeys. Evidence of customers eating and drinking filled a wastebasket next to the counter Tuesday, and one of the artists had a large soda on her worktable. The clean room is a table with an autoclave along one wall in the back office.
"There are a lot of regulations, actually," said Forever Yours artist Ocean Hardy, who said he learned the hard way about OSHA's required blood-borne pathogen training after he and a former employer were fined about $800 for letting him work without it. The Red Corss and the Alliance for Professional Tattooists offer additional certification programs.
Hardy said giving the state more oversight and enforcement power would help weed out shops that don't follow best industry practices.
"That just makes us all look bad," he said.
On Tuesday, Forever Yours customer Claudette Anderson said she's never seen a really dirty tattoo parlor in Tracy.
Anderson, who is getting a fifth tattoo, said she isa friend of the family that owns the shop and has seen all the equipment and sanitation procedures up close. Hardy said he does a demo for any customer who asks about it.
When asked if sanitation was important to her, she said, "Oh yeah. That's getting in my blood. Of course I do."