MEAGAN DILL

Dubstep pumps out of local studio Sacred Ink as tattoo artist Chris drills into a client’s arm. The client doesn’t appear to be in much pain as he sits and watches the tattoo appear. The studio seems clean – Chris wears rubber gloves, and biohazard bins for the disposal of used needles are clearly visible. So far, so good.

Scenes like this are pretty common these days, as tattoos become less taboo in our increasingly liberal society. But when considering getting a tattoo, there are a number of risk factors that should be taken into account.

At the top of your list of priorities should be your tattoo artist’s level of professionalism. Research done by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that getting a tattoo done by an amateur tattoo artist (or “scratcher”, as they are known) puts the client at risk of contracting hepatitis C. The illness can be transmitted through infected blood (carried, for example, on shared or unsterilised needles) and can also lead to more serious problems such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

In light of this, it’s probably a good idea to invest in a well-trained tattoo artist, rather than going to an amateur just to save a few bucks. As they say: you get what you pay for.

Chris, who is also the owner of Sacred Ink, explains that his studio takes safety seriously. He stresses that cross-contamination in particular is a risk factor for infection – but also feels that tattoo studios in general practise good hygiene. His advice: as a prospective client, make sure you know your tattoo artist and have a look at the studio to confirm that it is clean. A studio’s reputation and the value it places on good and friendly service can also be indicative of its levels of hygiene.

According to Chris, some tattoo studios are “more sterile than most hospitals.” He clarifies: “I’ve been in the ICU ward where my grandmother was dying. A male nurse came in to take blood and he was just touching everything, cross-contaminating everything.” This may say something quite worrying about the state of healthcare in South Africa – but at least it’s good news for tattoo enthusiasts. And it seems as though there are plenty of those at Tuks.

Chris estimates that about 75% of the studio’s clientele are students. This isn’t particularly surprising, since the studio is located in Burnett Street, Hatfield – practically on the university’s doorstep. What it does confirm, though, is that getting a tattoo is a popular trend amongst students.

Sarah Coughlan, a BA honours student, is a case in point. She has four tattoos: a Celtic cross on her right shoulder, a vine and pixie design on her left shoulder, a traditional Irish engagement ring on her right ankle, and a Pisces sign and fish on her back. To others, these may seem like arbitrary symbols, but to her, each tattoo represents something. “My advice would be not to get a tattoo just for the sake of getting one,” she says. “You need to think about what you want and what meaning it has for you, as well as where on your body you are going to get it done. After all, once it’s on your body, it is there forever so try [to] not get something you might regret one day.”

This brings up a fair point about tattoos: they are permanent. When planning your tattoo, you might want to step back and consider what your life is going to look like in five years time. Then ten. Then thirty. Then fifty. That Marilyn Manson tattoo on your neck might not seem as cool when you’re trying to get a job, or even raise your kids one day. Chris says that a useful guideline is making sure that your tattoo has some kind of personal meaning to you – even if it’s as simple as a reminder of this particular time in your life.

Kirsten Lombard, a fourth-year business science student at the UCT, takes a similar stance. “Inasmuch as you can’t erase that time in your life, you shouldn’t want to have the tattoo removed,” she elaborates. “You can only learn and move on and tattoos that you regret can be symbolic of that. Be grateful that you’re not like that anymore, [and see it as] a reminder of where you’ve been and where you’re going now.”

But what happens if you do decide, for whatever reason, that you want your tattoo removed? The most popular method of removal is laser surgery. Lasers break down the ink pigments in the tattoo, and the pigments are then absorbed into the body. This imitates the natural fading process of the tattoo that sun exposure would stimulate over a long period of time. Some colours, such as yellow, green and other bright colours, are more difficult to remove than others.

Unfortunately, laser removal is not quite as quick and easy as some people perceive it to be. Each session must be spaced at least eight weeks apart, with the total number of sessions needed varying from case to case. The removal of the tattoo is not actually guaranteed at the end of all this, and some patients may end up with dark or light spots of skin in the affected area. There is also the possibility of scarring.

Taking this information into consideration, the best cure may just be prevention. But at the end of the day, tattooing is an expression of individuality – and, fittingly, it’s up to the individual to weigh up the risks and benefits. The following anonymous quote does give an interesting perspective, though. As an answer to what to do with tattoos when ageing: “Dunno mate, probably grow an epic beard and hang out with other bad-ass tattooed dudes and generally look awesome. What are you going to do when you just look like every other old bastard?”

Photo: Bonita Lubbe

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