Tattoo trade is the 'Wild West' with few rules


When Tony Ritter got a tattoo at 20, he didn’t realize that the little bulldog emblazoned on his right shoulder blade would come back to bite him 15 years later.

What should have been a 90-minute procedure stretched into three hours of agony. It felt like the Nevada tattoo artist was grinding the needle into his bone, he recalled.

“I almost cried because it hurt so bad,” said Ritter, now 35. “When it was healing, it oozed a lot of the ink.”

Even though the tattoo looks normal, it’s essentially raised scar tissue that still gets inflamed, said Ritter, who lives in Colorado. He doesn’t know if the artist was licensed, but stories such as his are a reminder that people should make sure the person inking them is certified and safe.

Little oversight

Rodrigo Melo, artist/owner of North Star Tattoo in the East Village, pays $100 a year for his license, but he said: “The health department doesn’t do any regulation on us at all. … I’ve been working in the city for 10 years and I’ve never seen one person come in to check.”

The city health department — which licenses artists, not shops — refused repeated requests to comment or to provide the number of violations it has issued. As of Sept. 23, however, there were 25 complaints about tattoo artists to the city’s 311 hotline, bringing the five-year total to 80.

While that doesn’t seem like a large number, some in the industry said many wronged patrons aren’t likely to complain. And Dr. Roy Geronemus, director of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York, noted that there has been a spike in the number of people getting bad tattoos removed.

“[There’s] more and more botched jobs. Basically it’s the Wild West, there’s no control or enforcement of regulations,” he said.

Overall, he said, more people have been getting tattoos the last few years — and getting them removed.

“Unfortunately there are a lot more (unlicensed artists) than we would like to think. Most of them are underground and don’t show up in the headlines unless they actually do get busted,” said Karen Hudson, author of “Living Canvas. A Guide To Tattoos, Piercings And Body Modifications.”

But with so many legit places, why would anyone go to someone else?

“Usually it’s because they are looking for a loophole or looking for someone that’s OK with tattooing them because they are underage or they are high,” she said.

Also, it’s easy to get tattooing equipment, said Jason Buhrmester, editor in chief of Inked magazine.

“Anyone can buy a tattoo machine. You can pick up a magazine, or a catalogue or go to a convention, Web site,” he said. “There are tattoo suppliers out there. … you can also make your own machine.”

According to a 2006 study published by the American Academy of Dermatology, 24 percent of those surveyed had tattoos. In 1936, about 6% percent of Americans were tattooed according to Life Magazine.

In New York, odds are many clients for unlicensed tattoo artists are kids, as the legal age to get inked is 18.

‘Badge of trust’

Dr. Ariel Ostad, of NYU Medical Center, said unlicensed artists might share needles and not sterilize equipment, which can result in clients contracting hepatitis C, HIV or bacterial infections.

“The license is a badge of trust,” said Maia Ramnath, 36, a tattooed East Villager. “If it’s there, you can trust things are clean and sanitary.”

But Mark Haraela, an artist at East Side Ink, which was fined last July for allowing pop singer Rihanna to tattoo other artists in the East Village shop, disagreed. “A lot of places don’t have licenses, so I wouldn’t want to make people paranoid about a little piece of paper just to make sure they’re an OK tattoo artist,” he said.

Jen, a co-owner of East Side Ink who declined to give her last name, offered this advice: “Trust your instincts when you go into the shop. If it feels clean, looks clean, and you get a good vibe from the artist and the people who work there, then it’s good. If it looks dirty and seems off, it probably is.”

Phoebe Kingsak contributed
to this story.


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