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The Health Risks of Illegal Tattoos

WIS-TV news reporter PJ Randhawa is working on a series this week on illegal tattoos in South Carolina. In the below segment, Dr. Stuart Hooks of Peterson & Plante Internal Medicine Associates, talks about the health concerns and dangers of getting an illegal tattoo. If you or one of your children is thinking about getting a tattoo, you want to watch.

Here is the text of the story:
A growing number of people, often teens, are getting permanent marks on their skin by amateur artists in homes and garages.

The amateur artists, known as “scratchers,” do the work for an extremely lower cost than professional tattoo artists, but the results are not comparable in quality.

“I couldn’t get (a tattoo), so that made it more tempting,” Dakota Jones, who was tattooed at age 14 by a scratcher, said. “You can put a piece of how you feel on the inside, on the outside of your body.”

Tattooing minors has always been illegal in South Carolina, but Jones had no problem finding someone to break the rules.

“I met my friends who started doing the tattoos. He was like, ‘Yeah, I do tattoos,’” Jones said. “He was like, ‘You want one?’ Sure. (Then) I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t get one in a shop. This might be OK.’”

Jones got that tattoo and others done by a scratcher.

“One of them I laid on a kitchen table when I did it – in a regular kitchen,” she said.

It happened over and over again from the hand of amateurs until she was 18 and that’s when she noticed things were a little off, including one tattoo was halfway finished.

“A lot of them the lines are shaky or crooked. Words are misspelled,” Scot “Spider” Kumo, owner of Animated Canvas Tattoo Studio, said.

Those are often the trademarks of scratchers.

“They are working out of their house, passing out diseases. Tattooing minors,” Kumo said.

It’s what scratchers can leave behind in the skin that poses a serious public health risk.

“You worry about things like HIV, Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B. The blood-borne diseases would be the biggest concerns,” Dr. Gregory Stuart Hooks said. “They can have permanent disfigurement.”

Tattoo parlors are regulated by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, and its artists are certified in blood-borne pathogens with standards for cleanliness in place. Scratchers don’t follow these regulations, especially when tattooing in a kitchen.

“You have E. Coli, and all the ones you get from produce and chicken,” Hooks said of diseases that can get from doing a tattoo in a kitchen area. “We know how sick we can get if they get into our system. Imagine how sick we can get if they get into our skin. Plus all the diseases you can get from pets.”

Instead of stealing business from licensed tattoo studios, certified artists say scratchers actually have the opposite effect.

“It makes me more money because I get to cover up that awful tattoo they have,” Mick Jackson, a professional tattoo artist, said. “It’s probably two or three times the cost it cost them initially.”

But it’s that cheap and quick price for why many people say, ‘Yes,’ to scratchers.

“Now I have one on my back and I paid $20 for it,” Jones said. “Something you would pay $400 for in a shop.”

Jackson said there are people who tell him they would come to his shop for a professional tattoo, but they don’t because they don’t have the money to pay the price.

Jones said the scratchers she’s encountered charge her based on how much money they need at the time.

“The ones I have seen, it’s about the money,” she said. “What can I do to get this amount of money out of you? I will charge you $20 more to do one extra little thing. It’s just about what they need at the time versus what it would really cost. It’s what do I need right now.”

So where are the scratchers finding their business, and what laws are in place to stop them from marking your teen? WIS found there are loopholes that allow a scratcher’s business to thrive.

Kumo said anytime he’s called the police about someone tattooing illegally in a home, he’s told to call DHEC. Then DHEC tells him to call the police. Ultimately, Kumo said nothing is done to enforce the law.

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