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Ink Blot 

Pima County's tattoo parlors are unregulated and unlicensed.

When an elderly friend of hers died, Robin Magdalene decided to get a rose tattoo, like the one her "girl talk" buddy had.

So the 48-year-old visited a midtown body art shop where she'd gotten previous work done. Magdalene said she was looking at the "50,000 permutations" of roses displayed on the shop's walls when nature called.

After exchanging a glance with a co-worker, a tattoo artist pointed her in the direction of their bathroom. What she saw sitting on top of the commode, however, made her think twice about getting inked.

Although she's not an expert, and wasn't sure if the items had been sterilized or not, Magdalene alleged she saw "a whole pile of silver instruments," including a hollow needle and other "surgical-looking stuff" drying on a paper towel on top of the toilet tank. Fears cycled through her mind, she said, when she realized a fine mist of what went into the toilet might be circulating in the air.

"No doubt, if you did a culture on these things, you'd get little particles of fecal matter," Magdalene said. "So, I didn't get a tattoo and left rather abruptly. Makes me feel I need a hepatitis check-up."

Beyond some general rules, including age limits and prohibitions on doing body art in temporary structures, tattoo and piercing shops are unregulated and unlicensed in most Arizona cities and counties.

After the bathroom incident, Magdalene phoned county officials to see what they had to say.

"The county health department does not regulate tattooing or body piercing parlors," said Dr. Elizabeth MacNeill, chief medical officer of the Pima County Health Department. "There is potential for spread of blood-borne pathogens if sterilization procedures aren't followed, but there have been no cases of hepatitis in Arizona attributable to those places."

Undaunted, Magdalene contacted the Arizona Department of Health Services. They reportedly told her such regulations were left to cities and counties.

"(Body art is) not regulated at the state at all, which is kind of weird," said Will Humble, bureau chief for epidemiology and disease control at the Arizona Department of Health Services. "You know, barber shops and stuff are regulated by the Board of Cosmetology--and that's pretty non-invasive."

Humble said even though the industry is largely unfettered in Arizona, studies don't show a "smoking gun" correlation between body art shops and disease.

"There has been an association about spreading blood-borne pathogens in prison, where it's done with significantly less-sanitary equipment," he said. "Of course, when done improperly, there's evidence it can spread blood-borne pathogens. But in commercial establishments, it's not been clear."

To Humble, there are really two issues at play: transmission of blood-borne pathogens and risk of infection, "which might be downplayed at times."

To address some of these concerns, Coconino County (in Northern Arizona) recently adopted an ordinance requiring inspections and licensing of body art shops. Kimbal Babcock, environmental services manager with the Coconino County Department of Health Services, said the government was approached by people in the industry who were surprised by the lack of regulation after moving to Flagstaff from out of state.

"And, of course, if you're good in the body art industry, you don't want unregulated people around--(it) gets rid of some of the competition," said Babcock, who is unworried despite getting a tattoo just before the ordinance went into effect. "I think you'll find that the good ones don't mind stuff in place."

Vinny Sky, an ordinance supporter and owner of Sky's Art With a Pulse Tattoo in Flagstaff, said body art regulations were needed to stop people from doing tattoos improperly. Originally from Ohio, he came to Arizona and saw "everyone and their mother was doing tattoos, and they're not doing it right." Quite a few people reportedly come to him to fix bum jobs done elsewhere.

"It's better to have these regulations than to wait for something to happen," the 33-year-old said. "Too many people think they can have a tattoo shop and make lots of money, and that's it."

Sky, a 10-year tattoo veteran, claimed "most" of the artists in Coconino County were opposed to the ordinance.

"If you're doing things properly to begin with, you should have no reason to complain," he said.

According to Sky, there are many things to look for when looking to get some body art done.

"My advice to people is to go in and ask questions," he said. "Look around the shop. If it doesn't look clean or smell clean, go somewhere else. Be cautious; don't waste your time."

Sky said to pay attention to whether or not the shop has an autoclave, a device that uses superheated steam to kill microorganisms. Sterile things should be in a pouch, and a new needle should be used each time.

In addition, plastic parts involved in a tattoo should be cleaned with disinfectant. Sky said to make sure the artist isn't cleaning things with rubbing alcohol, because it "doesn't kill anything."

Back in unregulated Tucson, General Manager Victor Tackett, of the Enchanted Dragon at 4243 E. Speedway Blvd., said he wouldn't be concerned if an ordinance like Coconino County's made its way here. His family owns a store in Missouri where rules are tough, he said.

"All our stores exceed laws that they do impose," Tackett said. "We're not scared about that kind of stuff."

In addition to underscoring the need for an autoclave and sterile pouches when getting work done, Enchanted Dragon tattoo artists Michael "Hoss" Tupper and Chad Biorn advised people to steer clear of most in-home tattoo arrangements. You don't know how many "body fluids" are on that couch or mattress at a time when cleanliness is important, said 39-year-old Tupper.

"The majority of people who are working in their homes are uneducated," Biorn, 24, said. "It's not easy getting into a shop (to become a tattoo artist)."

Tupper, who has his Bonanza-esque nickname stenciled on his knuckles, said to be aware of your surroundings.

"A lot of people take for granted that if it comes out of a package, it must be sterile," he said.

Former Tucson resident Aimee Anderkin has been pierced and inked both here and near her new home of Sheboygan, Wis. While she doesn't doubt the sterility of the items used in Arizona, the workspace is required to be cleaner in the regulated Cheese State, said the heavily pierced and tattooed 23-year-old.

"Here (in Wisconsin), it's cleanliness like a hospital," Anderkin said. "You can eat off the floors here, where in Tucson everything is grimier. Not just anyone can open up a shop here like they can in Tucson."

Grimy or not, there are no concrete plans for statewide regulation of the body art industry, and there's very little interest on the county level in Arizona. With this in mind, one thing is certain for Magdalene.

"When we walk into the door of those places, we're not walking into a place that has to be inspected," she said. "With an unregulated industry, I'd probably want to see that needle unwrapped."

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