The barista had at least six tattoos ranging in size from a small rose on the inside of his wrist to a half-sleeve depicting a landscape scene.
When I asked about them, he smiled and told me each one had a special meaning. Then he rolled up his sleeve to show a disfigured area of skin from an infection on one tattoo on his shoulder. His only regret was not talking with someone knowledgeable about the process — beforehand.
The T-Mobile commercial airing on television takes a lighthearted jab at regrettable tattoos as two 30-something women sit poolside, their backs emblazoned with matching tattoos. The song, “Always Something There to Remind Me” plays in the background. It’s innocuous and funny.
Yet sometimes complications from body modifications can be severe and permanent. I know. Because in my health-care practice, teens often talk about body modifications but don’t ask questions about health safety, prevention or maintenance.
Believe me, beyond the artful ink are many stories of work that went awry.
A 24-year-old Canadian women posted graphic images of purple dye running down her cheek after a risky “sclera tattoo” made her partially blind. In Japan, an Osaka district court ruled that a tattooist had broken the law by practicing without a medical license.
No one wants to have a decision about a simple tattoo affect his or her health forever.
In this culture, tattoos can serve as a symbol of a person’s religious belief, commemorate an achievement, connection to a loved one and may mark a person’s rite of passage. In 2016, Statistic Brain reported that 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo.
Thirty-eight states have laws prohibiting minors from obtaining a tattoo without parental permission. With the cultural acceptance of tattoos becoming younger, we need to have conversations at home and in the community about health and safety to prevent complications.
In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines for providing care to adolescents and young adults seeking body modifications such as tattooing, piercing and scarification. You can adapt these tips for your own family.
As parents, caregivers and health-care providers, frank conversations about tattoos can possibly preempt problems. Plan for at least a 30-minute conversation focusing on the topic of body modifications beginning with an open-ended question such as: What are your thoughts about tattoos?
Additionally, talking with your family’s health-care provider is important as he or she can be invaluable in identifying potential health risks such as history of keloid formation, sensitivities to inks or increased risk of tooth breakage with tongue piercings.
You can also discuss maintenance and care for tattoos and body modifications including cleaning and protection during sports activities. Be sure to have discussions about the implications of job placement and the care and maintenance of tattoos while at work.
These conversations before tattooing, piercing or scarification can all help decrease the risk of skin complications, ink allergies and infections.
More broadly, you will want to have a talk about the content of the tattoo. Is it a symbol, language or depiction that could be offensive to some and that may deter the teen from employment or other considerations? Are there religious belief considerations at play, or any cultural stigmas that may impact the person’s life in a larger way?
Ask your teen to consider placement of the tattoo or body modification and understand if it is in an area of the body that is sensitive or susceptible to infection or other health concerns. For example, tongue or mouth piercings can make it difficult to talk, chew or swallow. These can damage the tongue, gums or fillings and make it hard for your dentist to take tooth X-rays. The piercings can also lead to gum disease, uncontrolled bleeding, long-term infection and even death if complications are not managed properly.
If your teen is still set on a tattoo, finding safer inking involves some investigative work. Find a tattoo parlor that is licensed (if the state regulates tattoo parlors) and ask about the length of experience of the tattoo artist. Check with your local health department if there been any violations. Then search for recommendations for local licensed artists at sites such as TattooDo, True Artists or Tattoo Design, among others.
Once at the studio, whether you accompany the teen or not, advise him or her to be sure the artist offers single use or “throw away” kits for individual use. Watch the artist open the kit and remove the new needle and tubing while wearing gloves and using disposable towels. Be sure the artist washes his or her hands.
Notice if the tattoo room is clean. See if there are red “sharps containers” visible. If not, ask how the artist disposes of the needle. Ask about the ink used and what it’s made of. Ask if the tattoo artist has used this ink personally and on others. It’s best if the ink is organic, nonmetallic and comes from a large, well-known manufacturer with a long business history. A good sign is if the artist uses that ink on himself or herself.
Before sitting for the tattoo, look closely at the tattoo artist’s portfolio to see if there is a wide variety of work: color, black and gray, traditional, realism or if it is small, common pieces. Observe what the skin looks like in the photo. Is it red or irritated or does it appears to have close attention to detail?
A really good tattoo artist will welcome questions. If a customer is not satisfied with any of the answers to these questions, don’t ink, walk.
Do the research. And when this conversation with your teen happens, tell them to take 24 hours to contemplate the repercussions before making this decision. Acquiring a tattoo, body piercing or scarification should not be made on impulse.
Tattoos and other body modifications can be a positive ornamental expression of identity and beliefs. They should also be safe.
Lynn Mohr, PhD, is a registered nurse and Assistant Professor at Rush University College of Nursing. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.