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14 Warning Signs That a Tattoo Shop May Not Be Clean

Writing about the science and philosophy of western tattooing.

A list of 14 warning signs to look for when choosing a tattoo shop.

A list of 14 warning signs to look for when choosing a tattoo shop.

Most people who visit tattoo shops are focused on the process of getting a tattoo, not how clean the tattoo shop is. The pain, the (possibly bad) mood of the artist, how much to tip… it can all be distracting for some people. On top of that, you are permanently marking your body and in doing so, opening yourself up to possible infectious agents that can cause discomfort, illness, possibly hospitalization and worse yet, death.

Take one stressor off your plate: Make sure the tattoo shop you are going to is clean before committing to that new tattoo. Here are a few things to look for when walking into a tattoo shop to determine if it is clean or not.

1. The tattoo shop looks dirty.

If you walk into a tattoo shop and you see visible dirt, dust on surfaces, unwashed floors, or overflowing garbage cans, it’s time to leave.

2. There's food in the tattooing area.

Food is not permitted in work areas, regardless how small the shop is.

3. It stinks.

If you walk into a shop and the smell of something foul overtakes your senses, there is a good chance that shop has not been cleaned well enough to ensure safe tattooing. Trust your nose.

4. Artist handles products without gloves.

The use of disposable gloves are ubiquitous in the body modification industry. These gloves should be changed regularly. If you see an artist set up for your tattoo without wearing gloves, or handle their tools without gloves, or if they never change their gloves, something is afoot. Handling objects without proper barriers increases the chances of cross contamination, which leaves you open to possible infection.

5. Their setup doesn't include barrier films and plastic covers.

Creating a barrier to prevent potentially infectious materials from coming into contact with commonly used products or tools is a minimum safe practice for tattooers. These barriers need to be new and freshly applied to all surfaces, machines, bottles, clipcords, and anything else that might touch your skin during the tattoo process. If the shop you walk into doesn’t seem to use barrier films, chances are that it isn't really clean.

6. Staff is visibly ill.

You don’t want to work with an artist who has diarrhea, is vomiting, or is coughing all over the place. The same rule should apply to all employees and apprentices at a shop. Doctors cost a lot, so don’t put yourself in a position that costs you time and money. Stay away from shops that have fallen ill. (It should also go without saying that you should stay away from tattoo shops if you feel sick.)

7. They don't give you a full tour of their shop.

All tattoo shops should be appreciative of the discerning clients who want to examine their shop thoroughly. If they process items onsite (if they do onsite sterilization), have them show you their machine and sterilization logs and explain their practices. If they refuse to do so, be wary of how clean the shop may be.

Dirty, dirty, dirty. If you found this outside the back door of your tattoo shop, what would you think?

Dirty, dirty, dirty. If you found this outside the back door of your tattoo shop, what would you think?

8. "Single use" doesn't mean single use?

Most of the products that come into contact with your skin during a tattoo are single-use. Ask to check the expiration dates on single-use items like needles, disposable supplies, and ink. If a shop is willing to use products that are expired, or attempts to reuse single-use items, they may not take your health seriously.

9. The shop does not adhere to your state's health code or licensing requirements.

If your state has licensing requirements for the shop or artist, make sure they are up-to-date. Most cities/states/provinces require a business license at minimum. Check with your local authorities to see how they keep the public safe from unlicensed tattoo shops.

10. Your artist has not gone through a blood borne pathogens (BBP) training.

A certificate of completion in BBP is a requirement in most places for an artist to practice tattooing. This course trains people in the fundamentals and safe practices when biological contaminants are in play.

11. The artist's rates are far below the industry standard for the area.

We've all heard it said that good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good. If a deal looks to good to be true, it most likely is. You should wonder what corners they cut to make the tattoo so cheap...most likely from skimping on a cleaning budget. Be safe and never sacrifice your safety for a cheap tattoo.

12. You don't see any "sharps containers."

Look for red containers with a biohazard symbol on them: These containers are where used needles and other sharp instruments are supposed to be placed after use for safe disposal. If a shop doesn’t have any, or if the sharps containers are overflowing, that's a red flag for getting a tattoo at that location.

Clean Tattooing

Clean Tattooing

13. The shop is difficult to find information about.

We live in a digital world, and most established shops have a digital footprint. If you can’t find any information on social media, or with a search online, chances are the shop may not be legit. If it is not legit, chances are it may not know how to operate in a sterile fashion.

14. The shop is dark.

How bright and light is the shop? By having brightly lit walls and floors, you are better able to see if blood or other substances have been splashed. Light walls, accompanied with enough light to properly see what the artist is doing, ensure artists are able to keep you safe before, during, and after the procedure.

When in doubt, trust yourself.

Never let yourself be pushed around, especially when you are spending money—it's even more true when you are spending money on body modification. Trust your judgement and walk away from any place that doesn’t treat you with respect and consideration.