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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Rolling Up Our Sleeves on Tattoos

May 10, 1999|JERRY HICKS

Mario Muzzy, whose faded T-shirt identifies him as the "Needle Master," is a walking advertisement for his Garden Grove tattoo business. His arms are covered by blue-ink demons and dragons. His smile shows a missing front tooth when I ask him who his customers are.

"Everyone from dirt bikers to businessmen to older ladies going through menopause," he said.

Tattoos used to result from temporary drunken insanity. But it's getting so even a lot of sane folks are into them now.

Shudder the thought, but if you feel compelled to turn some part of your anatomy into an artistic canvas, here's news you might like to hear: The government has plans to make it safer for you.

Not to scare you that most tattoo parlors are unsafe. But state public health epidemiologist Robert Schechter says, "Health incidents from unsanitary tattooing are infrequent, but serious."

Serious enough that the Legislature recently mandated that county health officials begin closer monitoring of tattoo parlors to ensure they meet state standards.

The same applies to parlors and other businesses that specialize in body piercing (the tongue, nose, or naval rings) and permanent cosmetics (recoloring your lips).

"Tattoo parlors no longer have the stigma they used to," said William Ford, county environmental health spokesman. "But we need to keep the safety standards for the industry high."

State officials say two types of hepatitis, toxic shock syndrome, liver disease, viruses and bad infections have all resulted from unsafe practices in these fields.

The chief lobbyists for more oversight were the tattoo parlors themselves, to help upgrade their public image.

The county's first step has been to get an inventory of what's out there. It's now collecting required registrations from those doing business in the three body work fields. The list so far is at 120, but should top 200.

"Right now we're using education and persuasion," Ford said, by letting these places know what standards will likely be expected of them.

The California Conference of Public Health Officers recently issued safety guidelines for these businesses, and those will soon be turned into state regulations. County officials have sent these guidelines to all who have registered.

A few samples: No tattoos for anyone under 18--even with parental consent--without a doctor's approval. Good room ventilation. Only state-approved inks and needle sterilization equipment.

Once regulations are in place, the county will begin annual inspections (and reinspections for those who don't pass).

Jennifer Rivard, a tattoo artist for a Newport Beach parlor, says such inspections will be welcome.

"It can only benefit us," she said. "We'll always have some stigma attached to what we do, but this should make a lot of people feel more comfortable about tattoos."

But even if your tattoo parlor is sparkling clean and perfectly run, the Needle Master Muzzy warns that infections and other health problems can come up "when the customers don't follow the after-care instructions we give them."

Ocean swimming soon after a tattoo is the worst: Bacteria from the water seeps into the tattoo, which is essentially an open wound the first week. Also, no tight clothing, and above all, don't let others touch your new tattoo with their unsterile hands.

My suggestion for safety: Forget decorating your body altogether. The Needle Master may call it art, I call it body drilling. Leave that for the dentist.

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