I have to admit: being in the tattooing industry, I sometimes forget that people outside the world of tattooing don’t entirely know what to look for, in terms of hygiene and sanitation, when they walk into an appointment or consultation. At this point in my career it is fully second nature, but I still see Instagram videos or TikToks that showcase poor procedures and practices on a daily basis. So, in this blog post, I really want to break down what to be on the lookout for when you walk into ANY tattoo appointment – whether it’s cosmetic or traditional – and why these things are so important.
Before we dive in, I would also like to also point out that (specifically to cosmetic tattooing) most studios offer a consultation (can be complimentary or up to $50 in some cases that I’ve seen. Inkvictus will ALWAYS offer completely complimentary 30-minute in-person or virtual sessions). Consultations can serve a variety of purposes and are not only about discussing your goals for your new tattoo. They’re also a great way to check out how you vibe with your potential artist, and actually see the space they tattoo in. When I see people asking about cosmetic tattooing in local online groups, I always recommend they book consults with artists before jumping right in and booking a session.
So, what’s the first thing I should look for when I walk into a space?
How clean is the area in general? Spotless? Or dusty? Does it smell nice? In my opinion, there’s only one chance to make a first impression and it’s incredibly crucial that it’s a good one. If an artist doesn’t care about the look, feel, and cleanliness of the space they are working in, what makes you think they’ll care about the tools and gadgets they’re using to tattoo with?
Also, and this may sound entry level, but you should know that your artist is washing their hands. We make it a point to inform our clients that we are and have. At Inkvictus, we use a specific medical-grade hand soap to ensure proper cleanliness. In Wake County, an artist should be washing their hands for five minutes before their first client of the day and then for at least two minutes in between any subsequent clients that day.
What about their actual working space?
Well for one, there should always be disposable barriers between the client being tattooed, the bed or table the client is on, and the artist themselves, as well as the tray the tattooist is working from for the entirety of the service. This includes: table wraps, plastic wrap, barrier film, aprons, and gloves. Before a tattoo needle has even reached skin, it’s important that everything is sterilized and protected; these products ensure that from the start and then once the skin is broken, these barriers will prevent bodily fluids (such as blood and lymph fluids) from spreading, which significantly decreases the risk of cross-contamination and the transfer of bloodborne pathogens from person to person.
If you don’t see any form of protective barriers, you MUST speak up and leave. DO NOT RISK IT. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen artists post videos where gloves are not being worn (or better yet, when their nails have busted right through the gloves and they’ve failed to get new ones), table wraps on the headrests are not being used, and the worst of the worst: needle cartridges without proper membranes are being used.
What makes you think I know what a needle cartridge membrane is?
These membranes are small parts of the disposable needle cartridge that prevent fluids (bodily or otherwise) from being pushed back up into the inner workings of the machine the artist is using to tattoo. This is incredibly important because if bodily fluids get pushed into the machine, ANY future client that machine is used on is then at risk for those fluids to be transferred to. (Note to artists: Most cartridge boxes, and the single needle packaging themselves, are marked stating whether or not they have membranes; however, if you don’t see this label, you can blow into the female end of the cartridge. If you hear any type of whistling or air pushing through to the front end, it does NOT have a membrane and that box of needles should be thrown away immediately.)
There are tattoo machines on the market that require a specific type of needle cartridge, and unfortunately, a LOT (not an exaggeration) of cosmetic tattooing “trainers” give them to their students. See the machine here. They may be sold under other names, on other websites, and at other price points, but trust – they are the same. Trainers are able to buy them in bulk at an extremely low price and add their personal branding, making prospective students think they are receiving a high-quality machine with their training. These machines and needles are KNOWN to not have proper membranes and should NEVER be used on a person. The risks are far too great. Frankly I find it appalling that there are trainers who favor making a few extra bucks by giving students such a poor machine over the safety of any future tattooed individual.
Going back to the tattooist’s tray, what else should I see?
Disposables. Disposables, disposables, disposables. Every item on the tray, before the act of tattooing, should be a one-time-use disposable item. Any item that is not disposable should be fully wrapped in additional protective barriers (think: the bodies of tattoo machines and cords). These additional protections include: bottle bags, machine/ cord covers, and grip tape. All needle packages should have the label “STERILE” somewhere on them, and any needles/ cartridges being used should still be in their unopened packaging; I prefer to actively show my clients that I am opening it up specifically for them.
You should NOT see pigment bottles on the tray or station, nor any other products such as numbing gels, tonics to soothe the skin, ointments, etc. These should remain elsewhere so that they could not accidentally be exposed to bodily fluids. Let’s think this through: if a needle has been used and then it is placed on the tray, bodily fluids have now been transferred to the tray, which is fine so long as the tray is properly wrapped. If a pigment bottle is then placed on the tray, it has now come into contact with those fluids. The next time those pigment bottles are used, those fluids are transferred back onto a new tray, with a new client, and on and on and on. These are Universal Precautions that are standard operating procedure in many lines of work, and ours should be no different. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that there are some artists that tend not to take these precautions seriously enough. These are the artists you should not trust.
What specific hygiene practices should my tattoo artist be employing during my session?
One of the most important: the artist should have gloves on for the entirety of the service. If at any point the artist needs to leave the workspace or touch anything that was not already on that wrapped tray, they should remove their gloves and then wash their hands before returning and putting on new gloves. Before beginning the service, the artist should clean the area of the body that is being tattooed with a 70% isopropyl alcohol (this can be with wipes or spray).
They should also be careful not to spill or drop anything as they work. If at any point this does happen, they should immediately stop tattooing, remove their gloves, and clean the area before re-washing their hands, grabbing fresh gloves, and continuing to work. Basically, there should be an unbreakable sacred loop between the artist, the safely wrapped materials they are using, and the client’s skin; if any outside event or item enters the equation, the loop has been broken.
Since this applies to us at Inkvictus, it is also worth noting: if the artist has an apprentice, their apprentice can be a helpful second set of hands during the service – but must also adhere to these strict guidelines.
What happens with everything after my tattoo session is complete?
Everything should be removed and thrown away. Full stop. NOTHING should be saved for future use. All needles should be placed in a marked biohazard sharps container, in adherence to local guidelines. (At Inkvictus, our disposable sharps items are placed in a red biohazard container kept separate from the workspace.) Once everything has been tossed, at Inkvictus Studios we spray everything down with Madacide and follow with CaviWipes. Not all studios go to this extent of cleaning (we don’t believe overkill is a thing when it comes to cleanliness), but medical grade cleaning products should still always be used in between clients.
Anything else I should know?
There’s always more – if I could crack my mind open and let y’all read the contents, I would! A big one that I’ve mentioned before is that it is illegal to be tattooed in a person’s house. Any artist must have their workspace permitted to actively tattoo a person by the Department of Health in the county/ state that they live in. Unfortunately in North Carolina and as I detail in the above post, these permits do not reflect the artists’ ability to tattoo, but only certify that the space they tattoo in is up to standards. (And by standards, we mean basic things like “it has hot running water”, “it has non-permeable flooring”, and “their workstation looks organized”.)
Going hand in hand with at-home studios being unacceptable, there should not be carpets or rugs underneath the tattooing bed/ table. If anything is spilled (soaps 🧼, pigment 🎨, blood 🩸) it can’t be cleaned properly.
In a cosmetic tattooing studio, you may be able to ask for a blanket (if they have any available), but the artist should take them home and wash them after every use.
There are far too many online tattoo courses that can “certify” an individual as worthy of tattooing without any in-person/ on-person practice (what we in the industry call “time on skin”). Most of these classes, as I’ve seen a ton of them over the years, do not even mention hygiene and sanitation (‼️).
I know it can be tough and overwhelming when you walk into any new space, let alone a tattoo studio, and of course you want to inherently trust the artist because they are the “trained professional” – I’ve experienced this myself in other professions and industries. But when it comes to your face, it’s truly so important to look at these finer details as they can have huge, lasting impacts on not only the quality of the work, but also on your health.
As you can tell, this is clearly an aspect of this industry that I am extremely passionate about. If you have any questions about anything in this post or can think of something I forgot to touch on, please PLEASE let me know! Let’s chat! 🖤
xo, Kat Kenny