The risk of getting inked

Lauren Clairmont | Assistant Lifestyles Editor

Reddish-purple bumps, lung disease, joint infection, eye problems and organ infections are far from what people expect when they get a tattoo. However, a recent outbreak of skin infections has everyone from The New England Journal of Medicine to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control (CDC), warning tattoo artists and patrons alike about the risks recently associated with certain contaminated tattoo inks.   

On Aug. 22, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) released an article confirming reports of several cases of red bumps on the gray shaded areas of recently acquired tattoos.

Though the NEJM article only expressly refers to a few outbreaks in New York, the CDC report released on the same day revealed cases in Washington, Iowa and Colorado as well.

With 21 percent of adults claiming to have at least one tattoo-a percentage that has climbed seven percent in four years-discovering the cause of this strange rash proved paramount for the FDA.

Through collaborations with local and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, investigations classified the skin infections as varying species of a nontuberculous mycobacterial infection associated with multiple brands of ink (NEJM).

While it was previously believed this infection stems from diluting dark tattoo ink with tap water or distilled water to get a “grey-wash” effect during the actual tattooing process, the bacteria in recent infections was actually found among unopened pre-diluted ink bought from a manufacturer.

“All infections [found in 14 New York residents] were associated with use of the same nationally distributed, prediluted gray ink manufactured by company A,” the CDC said.

The CDC has yet to release the name of “company A.”

On Thursday, I sought out a tattoo artist who could give me an insider’s perspective on how this news has affected the tattoo industry in Wilmington, while simultaneously inking the arches of my feet with a quote that had been in my head all summer.

During my search I found Michael “Merck” of Hardwire Tattoo, located downtown on Front St. Merck is a jack-of-all-trades-student, artist and member of the National Guard, who was more than willing to fill me in on this recent development in the tattoo world.

He explained to me the process of becoming a reputable tattoo artist.

“You need one of those,” he said.

Merck motioned to a permit to tattoo issued by the New Hanover Health Department hanging above my head, then went on to explain that the permit certifies that the artist has a sink nearby and that Merck answered “all the questions correctly.”

However to become successful in the business, artists need experience.

“Do an apprenticeship,” said Merck. “A lot of places you just pay a couple grand and they just teach you the minimum. Here, you pay your dues. It’s better for the artist.”

Merck did a three-year apprenticeship at Hardwire. Part of his training involved tattooing himself before he was allowed to tattoo customers.

“You can’t tattoo someone else if you can’t tattoo yourself first,” said Merck.

When we got around to discussing the skin infection outbreaks in New York, Merck told me the FDA emailed everyone with a tattoo permit, warning them about how the disease is transmitted and where it came from.

I was surprised to hear the email was just a warning, similar to one released by the FDA the day after the NEJM report.

“States have different laws,” said Merck. “The email was a warning. There could still be people out there using that [contaminated] ink.”

“Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, tattoo inks are considered to be cosmetics, whereas the pigments used in the inks are color additives that require pre-marketing approval…However, the FDA does not have the authority to require pre-marketing submission of safety data from manufacturers, distributors, or marketers of cosmetic products, with the exception of most color additives,” said NEJM in their report.

“Microorganisms don’t want to grow in the [actual] ink,” said Merck.

However, microorganisms do like to live in the water added to ink. Merck assured me diluting ink with distilled water is a common practice, and usually safe, though he doesn’t do it himself.

“I use witch hazel [to dilute ink],” said Merck. “It’s an antiseptic like hydrogen peroxide. It’s like I’m giving you a cut and cleaning it at the same time.”

“Before diluted ink, the scare was an allergic reaction, usually to red ink,” said Merck. “But that was just a person to person thing.”

The waiver customers sign before a needle comes anywhere near the skin warns of this possibility.

In addition to waivers and witch hazel, Hardwire employs other methods to keep both customers and artists safe. Before I sat down on the tattoo chair, Merck sprayed it down with LPH.

“It’ll eat your skin off,” said Merck. “It works as a germicide. Dilute it, spray it on, and then it takes seven minutes of contact time [to kill everything]. After seven minutes, wipe it off with alcohol. Then you could eat off this thing.” 

Wearing latex gloves, using sterile needles and the general antiseptic hospital smell all showed Hardwire Tattoo to be the clean, safe, fun environment they allude to on their website-a fact UNCW students will be happy to hear.

Lately, Merck has been busy with a very specific UNCW clientele.

“Everyday for the next few weeks, [it will be] freshman sneaking tattoos,” said Merck, smiling.

Being away from parents for the first time brings a lot of young people to the shop. Luckily, freshman can rest assured knowing they won’t have to give themselves up early. A trip to Hardwire won’t lead to a phone call home because their new tattoo led to a nasty skin disease.

Another bonus? Merck offers a 10 percent discount to UNCW students with an ID.

A new tattoo, enough money left over for a Cook-Out tray, and low risk of getting a weird disease? Sounds like the perfect plan for an adventurous weekend, or in my case, a random Thursday afternoon.