What to look for – and avoid – in a tattoo shop

Training, safety and cleanliness always trump price

Thinking of getting inked? Given the permanency of tattoos and potential risks, it’s best to be prepared before going under the needle.

Shane Turgeon (Radio and Television ’02), owner of Shades of Grey in Edmonton, has worked in the tattoo industry for close to 20 years and knows exactly what you should look for in a shop – and what to avoid. Although all tattoo shops are provincially regulated, Turgeon says there’s a sizeable gap in quality, cleanliness and integrity and only recommends going to the best.

“There are over 120 studios in Edmonton, and I would say maybe 20 or 30 should be open and are ones I would recommend people get tattooed at,” Turgeon says. “Even as a shop owner, I have no problem recommending people to go to another studio [if they’re reputable].”

Many tattoo shops require staff to have a bloodborne pathogen certification; it’s not mandatory, but strongly encouraged. NAIT now offers a comprehensive course on that and other aspects of tattoo safety.

Sean Kuzminski (Medical Radiologic Technology ’02) oversees the new certificate as the portfolio manager for health, safety and emergency operations courses offered by NAIT Continuing Education. He says tattoo artists should know safety standards and be able to talk to clients about sterilization, infection control, bloodborne pathogens and more. The course covers that along with a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, or WHMIS, certification.

“Students learn what to do if there is blood exposure, what hazards are associated with working in an industry where you’re exposed to blood, and cross-contamination,” he says.

NAIT’s course not only gives artists the training they need, it’s useful for everyone in the industry, from managers to staff working at the front desk to aspiring piercers or tattoo artists, he adds.

Kuzminski and Turgeon have tips on what to look out for ahead of getting a tattoo.

Cleanliness is next to …

“If you walk into a shop and it doesn’t have a doctor’s office or dentist’s office kind of cleanliness to it, it’s probably not a good place to be,” says Turgeon. “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

That goes beyond a clean floor and workspace. There’s the potential for health risks throughout the whole shop, including in surface cracks, Kuzminski says.

“If you’re sitting on a vinyl table with a crack in it, there’s the potential for blood exposure to collect in there.”

Research and compare

In many parts of life, getting a deal is a good thing. But you shouldn’t be calling around for the most affordable tattoo.

“Good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good,” Turgeon says. You get what you’re willing to pay for.

When researching, ask about the type of equipment used. Most modern shops use single-use, pre-sterilized, disposable equipment. Some shops do reuse equipment and sterilize in an autoclave, which is fine too, he says. But a reputable shop should be upfront and willing to answer your questions.

Tattoo shops are inspected annually by Alberta Health Services and expected to maintain a high safety standard. You can ask to see a copy of the last inspection.

“If shops are unwilling to show you, that’s probably not a shop you want to be in,” says Turgeon. “They might have something to hide. You shouldn’t have to do that with every shop you go into, but if you’re concerned about something you can certainly ask and a shop should provide that.”

A question of integrity

As with most things in life, trust your gut, Turgeon says. You need to feel right about the business you’re dealing with and their practices before allowing them to make a permanent mark on your body.

“A lot of shops don’t have integrity,” he says. “Integrity is worth more than money.”

For example, many shops will tattoo minors. It’s not against the law to tattoo someone over the age of 16 with parental consent, but “shops with standards won’t do it,” he says.

Another thing to be wary of? Shops that will tattoo the neck or hands of clients who don’t have other visible tattoos.

“Your hands and neck are literal job stoppers,” says Turgeon. “They’ll limit your career opportunities for the rest of your life.” If a tattoo shop agrees to do that on a tattoo rookie, that’s not the kind of shop you want to get inked at.

Before you get a tattoo

Know what you want before you get anywhere near a tattoo needle.

“If you don’t know what you want to get tattooed, you’re not ready to get tattooed,” Turgeon says. Do some research on different styles and determine what you’ll like seeing on your body for the rest of your life. Many people, he says, will get inked just to get inked. “Tattoos have become a fashion statement, which is totally fine. But you have to realize this is with you forever.”

After the tattoo is done, keep it clean. Use fragrance-free soap and moisturizer and don’t touch it. “Your hands are filthy,” says Turgeon. “You have to consider it an open wound. Do not pick your scabs, or you’ll need touch-ups.” All shops should give you an after-care guide to follow. If they don’t, they’re probably not a reputable studio, he says.

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