Tattoo shop should be as sterile as an operating room

Consuming Interests


Getting a tattoo is a lot like getting married.

You enter into the relationship assuming it will be permanent. So, you shouldn't do it while drunk, on the spur of the moment or with the first person who comes along.

You should take your time, do research and pick just the right place for the big moment.

And it never hurts to keep in mind one of life's most useful rules: Safety first.

A good tattoo shop ought to be easier to find than Mister or Miss Right. But with shops popping up everywhere, how do you know whether you've picked a real pro or some guy whose last gig was on Cellblock B?

There are three main things to consider: "The quality of the work, cleanliness of the shop and the overall customer service," said Jim Kenney, a tattoo artist for eight years, seven of them at Artistic Armor Tattooing in Tampa, Fla.

"You definitely want good work done by cool people in a clean shop."

The first thing to do is make sure a shop is neat and clean. And if that's not the first impression you get when you walk in the door, walk out.

"What you see in the front room is a pretty good indication of what you will see elsewhere in the shop," the Alliance of Professional Tattooists Inc. writes on its Web site (

If things look OK at first sight, start asking questions about equipment and sterilization procedures. Ask specifically if the shop has an autoclave for sterilizing its instruments. Hospitals use autoclaves for theirs, Kenney said, and Artistic Armor uses them at both its locations.

Other machines can be used for sterilizing, or instruments can arrive pre-sterilized. But the Alliance of Professional Tattooists says an autoclave is the only acceptable way to sterilize. Ask to see whatever equipment a shop has.

Also necessary for safety and cleanliness are biohazard containers for anything blood-stained, containers for used needles and accessible facilities for washing hands with hot water and soap.

Watching an artist work on someone also is a good way to judge a shop's procedures. You should be allowed to observe artists at work (with the consent of the client.)

"Everything should be out in the open," Kenney said. "There should be nothing they shouldn't want people to see."

A reputable artist will put on new latex gloves before doing anything. He will pour a new ink supply into a new disposable container and remove a new needle and tube setup from a sealed envelope right before starting the process. And he will change gloves during longer sessions.

Once the process is finished, the artist should disinfect the tattooed area with an approved virus-killer and provide detailed, understandable instructions for caring for the new tattoo.

If that sounds a little more clinical and unromantic than you had thought, good. It should.

"It's almost to the point where [it's like] you were getting any kind of small surgery or medical process done," Kenney said.

When it comes to picking the tattoo and the artist, you should be able to see all the portfolios you're interested in. And everyone in the shop should be courteous, helpful and willing to answer all your questions. Dismissiveness, evasiveness or rudeness should send you out the door.

A bad shop choice can have a range of bad consequences, from a lousy tattoo the shop doesn't want to fix to infection.

"All different kinds of stuff can go wrong," Kenney said. "But if you research it well, then you should have a good experience."

Sharon Fink writes for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

Safety first

A shop and its artists should look clean and neat.

Ask how the shop sterilizes its instruments. The best way is with an autoclave, which uses a combination of heat, steam and pressure to kill pathogenic micro-organisms. You don't want those on you. Shops should keep regular records of their autoclave use and testing.

A shop should have biohazard containers for bloodstained objects, containers for used needles and accessible facilities for washing hands with hot water and soap.

An artist should wear latex gloves at all times; always open new, sterile needle packages and tubes in front of the client; and pour a new ink supply into a new disposable container.

An artist should provide clear, thorough instructions on care following the procedure.


Everyone at a shop should be helpful, informative and courteous, and answer all your questions.

You should be able to look at all artists' portfolios.

Before you get inked, you should be allowed to watch artists work, with the clients' permission.

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