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The Skin Trade 

by Pia K. Hansen


King Frederik IX of Denmark did it. Middle-class white women do it. Corporate lawyers do it. Dennis Rodman does it. Pamela Anderson does it. Supermodels do it. Gang members do it. Indigenous people all over the world do it. And more and more teenagers do it. Never before have so many lizards, frogs, ladybugs and spiders crawled up so many ankles and legs. Never before have so many "tribal" designs been wrapped around so many biceps. Never before have this many dolphins jumped joyously across that many midriffs. In other words, like never before, people of all ages, shapes, races and sizes are getting tattooed.


In the '90s, tattoos started to show up in places where they had never been seen before: on women's ankles, wrapped around upper arms, peaking out over low-rise jeans, gracing a thigh here and a foot there. Last month, it was hard to find one adult Hoopfest team that didn't have at least one tattooed player. Well, get ready to brace yourself for a similar wave of piercings -- and no, we're not talking about holes in the ears.


Those of us old enough to remember the '70s and the early '80s remember the time when men started getting their ears pierced. Around that same time, many women went in for the second, third or -- gasp! -- fourth hole in their ears.


Today, piercings go in everything from noses to eyebrows to nipples to navels to tongues and, umm, private areas. On both men and women. We're talking really sensitive areas.


Catching on to this new fashion, piercing shops have sprung up across the area, some in connection with existing tattoo parlors, others as individual studios. And business is good.


Colleen Smith is a piercer -- or a body-piercing artist, as she prefers to be called. We meet around noontime in the piercing room at Ink World, a tattoo gallery in Coeur d'Alene.


It's not only bad girls and boys, porn stars and punkers who get pierced. You'd be surprised how many corporate types have a little stainless steel surprise hidden away.


For those of us who are needle-shy, it's hard to understand the fascination with piercings; it's equally difficult to get the pierced to explain specifically why they do it. Mostly, people say, they just knew they had to get pierced -- it was just the right thing for them to do.


For one woman, her pierced navel was a reward to herself for successfully losing a lot of weight. For another, a pierced tongue was her parents' reward to her -- she was 16 at the time -- for getting good grades, a job and her own car insurance.


"I've been piercing myself since junior high, you know, the wrong way," says Smith, rolling her eyes. "The first thing I pierced? I was 15 years old, and I did my own nipples with a safety pin -- that was 13 years ago."


Where did that idea come from? "I don't know where it came from," she says, looking a little shy. "It was just... I mean... I just did it. I just wanted to do it."


Today, there's nothing Smith doesn't pierce -- well, actually, there is, but we'll get to that later.


For the uninitiated, a real piercer doesn't use a piercing gun like the ones used at the mall to pierce your ears.


"I always, always use a needle. The [piercing] guns don't just pierce a hole, they also shatter the tissue around the actual hole because they aren't sharp enough," Smith explains. "That's why so many people have problems with scar tissue around the holes in their ears. A needle goes straight through -- it's a lot more of a clean hole."


Smith's ears are pierced in more places than I can count. Her eyebrows are pierced. She has big, bold and beautiful tattoos on her legs. She seems to be equal parts punk and Earth Mother, as she sits there in her big skirt and solid boots, hair brightly colored and divided.


You can't graduate in piercing at the local community college, so good piercers do what Smith did: They take on an apprenticeship and learn by doing.


"There are seminars and classes and other things like that you can take," says Smith. " But there is no technical certification. For the apprenticeship, you are usually chosen by someone who's been a piercer for a long time. I had an apprenticeship for two-and-a-half years, and then I learned on my own."


There are definitely trends within piercing as well as tattooing.


"The young teenage girls see Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears on the covers of magazines and then they come in and want their navels done," says Scott Hankins, one of the tattoo artists at Ink World.


Smith says she does a lot of navels, ears and noses.


"I do genital piercings as well, but not as many. I guess it takes more 'oompf' to get those done," she laughs. "The only thing I won't pierce is the actual clitoris -- I'd say if you do that, there's a 50-50 chance things can go really wrong and you lose complete sensation there. I won't do that. And I don't do tongues on really young teens either. I also feel like I intrude on their bodies, like it's inside their bodies and they are not old enough to consent to that."


And Smith is busy. Once, over a five-month stretch she did 1,300 piercings.


"I poked a lot of holes," as she puts it, with a big smile.


But why? Why do people do it?


"It's an empowering experience for a lot of people. It's about taking back your body, taking back what's yours," says Smith. "For some people, it has a much deeper meaning. Reasons are different for everyone."





Age Is a Question -- A mom recently walked into Ink World with her 13-year-old daughter in tow. A safety pin was dangling from the girl's eyebrow, where she had pierced herself because her mom wouldn't give her permission to go in and have the piercing professionally done.


"So there they were, asking me what I could do," says Smith. "We talked and the mom basically said that she didn't want the kid to do it, but now that she had pierced herself, the mom would rather have me do it. The thing is that my name is going to be on that piercing, so I can't just stick a new piece of jewelry through the hole she's made herself. We redid it."


Age is a huge issue when it comes to piercings, but there are no laws in Idaho saying anything about how old you have to be to get a piercing or a tattoo. There are no piercing laws in Washington either, and there are very few relating to tattooing.


"It's a misdemeanor to tattoo any person under the age of 18," says Glenda Moore, customer service specialist with the Washington State Department of Health. "It doesn't help that you have a permission slip from your parents. It's the person doing the tattoo who's doing something illegal, not the person getting it."


Smith sets her own age limits, even though Idaho doesn't set any for her.


"For me to do ears and navels, they have to be 15 and I like for them to be taller than 5 foot 3," says Smith. "If you do the navel before people are fully grown or close to being fully grown, it can get to look really bad when they grow and their body changes form. I'd say even at 15 it's pushing it."


For anything else, Smith demands a valid ID and that the person being pierced is 18 years old.


"I have turned away three or four minors in a day," says Smith. "I just don't want to do something that's irresponsible, but that doesn't mean that these people can't get it done at some other studio."


Hankins turns away minors who want to be tattooed as well.


"Some of the kids from Washington come over here to get it done. We are as careful as we can be," he explains. "And of course, we'll never do people who are drunk or intoxicated or anything like that. You have to know what you are doing -- permanent means forever."





No License Required -- If you're opening a restaurant, the health department comes out and inspects your place -- before, during and after it's open. Very specific guidelines have to be followed closely to make sure that your hot foods are hot and your cold foods are cold, and that your employees have a place to wash their hands so that no one gets sick from eating your food. Hairdressers have to follow certain regulations as well in order to be licensed. Not so for tattoo and piercing parlors.


"There is no inspection process, there's no complaint process, nothing like that, for tattoo parlors," says the Washington Health Department's Moore. "There are some sterilization rules that apply to places that do electrolysis -- they apply to tattoo artists as well. If you don't follow the rules, that's considered negligence."


But no one comes out to check if a tattoo artist follows the rules. If anything goes wrong, there's no appeals board, no ombudsman, no system in place to receive and register customer complaints.


"There is no complaint process other than, I guess, law enforcement," says Moore.


Counties in both Washington and Idaho can enact their own rules and licensing requirements, but none have done so in Idaho.


"There are some cities in Washington that have licensing requirements and processing for tattoo artists," says Moore. "Seattle does, and Yakima, but it's not regulated by the state -- it's regulated by those cities."


Considering that both piercing and tattooing involves needles penetrating the skin and some blood -- in the case of male genital piercing, there can be quite a lot of blood -- you'd think somebody would be more interested.


"Hawaii is the only state that requires licensing and an annual physical for tattooists," says Gina Dwyer, assistant with the Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT). "Oregon requires that tattooists register with the health department, and the health department can come in any time and inspect the site. They also require continuing education."


Incorporated in 1991, the APT is a worldwide organization. With more than 2,600 members across the world, APT is widely recognized as the professional and ethical voice of the industry. It was formed by tattoo artists who were concerned about the lack of health inspections and, in some cases, inadequate sterilization procedures that were practiced by some tattoo parlors.


"We have a course online that gives the required information about contamination and communicable diseases," says Dwyer. "The tattooists who take this exam are required to know the mechanics of their equipment quite well. Between three and five years of apprenticeship is needed, or they won't pass the test."


She adds that APT would like to see something like its course become the national standard. Yet there has never been a legislative attempt to pass national rules for registration and licensing.


"We are trying to do what's good for the profession," says Dwyer. "Appropriate licensing and inspection would also solve another problem: Some tattooists work on a cash basis only, and don't report all the money they earn to the IRS."





Oh, It's Safe Enough -- It's easy to convince yourself that since so many people are doing it, tattooing and piercing are perfectly safe. Well, in most cases it is perfectly safe. Still, there are some very real health risks associated with both procedures.


"You are looking at two types of risks: one is bacterial infections and the other is hepatitis," says Mark Springer, epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health Department. "There are two different types of hepatitis we worry about in this case: Hepatitis B, which is spread through blood or sexual contact, and Hepatitis C."


Hepatitis B is more likely to give adults an acute infection, but it rarely goes into a chronic carrier state (meaning that the infected person is contagious).


"Hepatitis C goes into a chronic carrier state 80 percent of the time, and it's not very symptomatic," says Springer. "Only about 30 percent of people infected show symptoms. Many are not diagnosed until years down the road, when they start showing symptoms of liver disease. In the meantime, they can have spread the disease to many other people."


Springer is not as concerned about HIV. "It is an issue, but we don't tend to see that much research on that," he says. "HIV can be transmitted through blood, so we would expect a transmission could occur."


So, considering the absence of health inspections and regulations, what are the odds of getting more than a tattoo.


"The risk is, you know, low. But the one caveat would be to look at the population that goes into a commercial parlor," says Springer. "Commercial places use gloves, they sterilize equipment, they are not reusing ink and [they're] taking all the important precautions."


He is much more concerned with people who have tattoos -- and piercings -- done by amateurs, or "scratchers," as they are called by the professionals.


"That's a huge risk. It's the people who get a home tattoo done by a friend that are really putting themselves at risk," says Springer. "People are not sterilizing the equipment, they use the same ink on many people, and they do the tattoo on someone's couch, often times on a person who's drunk or otherwise impaired -- that's where we see a lot of risks."


Springer gives the commercial parlors a high grade for trying to do things safely.


"They of course want to protect themselves from a liability standpoint, but they also want to be perceived as responsible businesses," says Springer. "But there are very few regulations."


There are also concerns about contamination getting into the nation's blood supply.


"We have a one-year deferral for donations after you have gotten your ears pierced, a tattoo or any form of body piercing," says Bob Purdy, director of community services at the Inland Northwest Blood Center. "We are mostly concerned with hepatitis, but these guidelines are federal guidelines. We just follow those."


He says about 13 percent of the INB's blood supply comes from high schools. "That's a bit of a problem, because that's when they start getting piercings and tattoos," says Purdy. "We see a lot of deferrals in that age group."





Before You Go -- At Ink World, the staff follows elaborate sterilization procedures, including the use of a sterilizer and of course gloves and one-use-only needles that come in sterile packages.


"Ask questions of the person who's going to pierce you or tattoo you," says Smith. "No question is a stupid question. Ask if the needles are single-use only. Ask if they have an autoclave and if you can see it. Look around. Is the place clean? It should be clean. It should smell clean. No one should be smoking, and there shouldn't be any pets around."


And don't use a cheap piece of jewelry to put in your new piercing. "That can ruin everything. It can flake and cause allergic reactions. Always ask your piercer before you get new jewelry," she says. "Some people are so sensitive they have to use pure gold jewelry or surgical steel."


The same goes for aftercare of piercings and tattoos.


"Listen to the piercer or the tattoer. Follow the directions they give you," says Smith, "and don't, don't, absolutely don't touch it. Your hands are full of germs, and if you play with a new piercing you are very likely to contaminate it or infect it."


All body artists and tattooists have portfolios showing their work. Always ask to see those before you say yes to anything.


Smith's portfolio is sitting out on the front desk at the studio. Before I go home, she shows me piercings of noses and navels, eyebrows and ears that she's done.


She issues a warning when we make it to the X-rated section, featuring pictures of male and female genital piercings.


"This can be a bit much for some people," she says.


Who knew there were so many ways to stick a sharp needle through your private parts?


"Oh, shoot," says Smith all of a sudden. "I keep the book out here so people can see what I do, but sometimes the photos disappear," she says.


Disappear?


"Yeah," says Smith rolling her eyes. "Some people come in here just to steal the photos of genital piercings. Now that, I think, is sick."





Publication date: 07/17/03
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