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Tainted Tattoos


Tattooing punctures the skin, opening a path for blood-borne diseases, which can be transmitted via tattoo needles, contaminated reused ink or unsterile surfaces.

Tattooing punctures the skin, opening a path for blood-borne diseases, which can be transmitted via tattoo needles, contaminated reused ink or unsterile surfaces.

Not your typical risk-taker, Brenda Huish, 52, the front person for a professional accounting practice in Surrey, BC, decided to do something a tad risque...get a tattoo.

What was the image the grandmother of two had inked permanently on the back of her right shoulder? Her grandchildren’s names? Not quite. Try an iced pink doughnut.

“You can ask my friends and they’ll tell you that doughnuts are my favourite food,” says the boisterous Huish. “And since I can’t eat them very often - because I’d be a blimp - that’s the image I chose.”

Although this daring grandmother’s choice of tattoo is certainly unique, she is far from alone in her body-marking decision. No longer the exclusive domain of bikers, sailors, and cellmates, tattoos have gone mainstream. While the taint of tattoos may no longer be social, there are safety risks, something that Huish says definitely gave her pause.

Health Risks

The potential risks are many, including bacterial skin infections, herpes, HIV, and hepatitis B. Increasingly, hepatitis C is a cause for concern. The poster girl for this disease is Canadian-born celebrity Pamela Anderson, who announced in 2002 that she contracted hepatitis C from sharing a tattoo needle with her then husband, Tommy Lee.

Unlike hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, and its consequences are grimmer. It is a potentially fatal, often asymptomatic, disease that attacks the liver and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Although blood transfusions, intravenous drug use, and unprotected sex are the acknowledged risk factors for hepatitis C contraction, tattooing is becoming recognized as another factor. A 2001 University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study concluded that people who received a tattoo from a commercial tattoo parlour were nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than those with no tattoo at all.

Other research doesn’t assess the risk quite so dramatically. According to findings reported in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, only three percent of new cases of acute hepatitis C point to tattooing and/or body piercing.

Still, there’s no disputing that tattooing punctures the skin, opening a path for blood-borne diseases, which can be transmitted via tattoo needles, contaminated reused ink or unsterile surfaces. (Canadian Blood Services know this and defer blood donors with tattoos for one year.)

Buyer Beware

Health Canada developed infection control guidelines for the tattoo industry, but “there is no regulation,” says Jessie Kovesy, co-owner of Edmonton-based Shambhala Tattoos.

True, municipal health units are supposed to inspect tattoo parlours. Shambhala, in fact, conducts tattoo safety seminars for future health inspectors. But there are no industry regulations, which would fall under provincial jurisdiction.

Keith Kennedy, manager of To the Point, a Calgary tattoo and piercing shop, hopes to see Alberta, followed by other provinces, adopt tattoo parlour regulations soon, but says it’s been a slow process.

In the meantime, the biggest safety concern, says Kennedy, is the number of bargain “basement” tattoo artists. “The best and safest shops are going to have the longest waits to get in and they’re going to be the most expensive,” he says.

Brenda Huish chose safety first, and thoroughly researched the risks.

Hopefully the only regret you’ll ever have is the image itself. (Pamela Anderson had her tattoo of Tommy changed to Mommy.)

“When I’m 65, will I be embarrassed by the doughnut?” Huish muses. “Nah…it’s my trademark.”

Tattoo Parlour Safety Tricks

Here are some practices, tattoo parlours should be following, according to Health Canada.

The shop:

  • The work area is clean and brightly lit.
  • The shop should have a “clean zone” and a “dirty zone” (i.e., for used equipment).
  • Work surfaces are made of smooth and nonporous materials, and cleaned with bleach and water.


  • Instruments are easily cleaned and sterilized, such as those made with stainless steel.
  • Tattoo needles are new and sterile for each treatment.
  • The tatoo machine is wiped with alcohol after each use and covered with new, disposable plastic.
  • The shop uses a sterilizing machine (i.e., an autoclavel), preferably a steam sterilizer, and test strips are used to check whether it is operating correctly. Sharp implements used to pierce the skin are put into puncture-resistant containers.
  • Pigments used for one client are poured into clean, single-use caps, which, along with any leftover pigments, are discarded after use.


  • Artists have clean working habits, including proper hand washing
  • Artists wear medical gloves.
  • Artists give instructions for personal aftercare.


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