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Illegal tattooists and cheap DIY kits endangering public safety, councils warn

Illegal tattooists are offering ink designs at “pocket money” prices to children and putting people at risk of contracting hepatitis and HIV, council leaders warn today.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils, says unlicensed tattooists – also known as “scratchers”- are using cheap equipment bought online in makeshift, unsterilised home ‘studios’, which are often just kitchens or garden sheds.

As council environmental health teams carry out raids and prosecute illegal tattooists, the LGA is urging online retailers to provide warnings to children on the dangers of using DIY tattoo kits – which can be bought for less than £25 – and for tougher sentences for illegal tattooists.

Although you have to be 18 to have a tattoo or tattoo someone else, it is not illegal to tattoo yourself.

Fuelled by celebrity culture, tattoos remain popular with nearly one in three (29 per cent) of people aged 25-34 in the UK said to have at least one tattoo and more than 1,500 licensed tattoo parlours in the UK.

But unregistered tattooists are undercutting legitimate tattooists by offering cut-price deals, taking dangerous short-cuts with health and safety, and advertising their services on social media.

Illegal tattooists and DIY tattoo kits can also provide an avenue for under-18s to get a cheap tattoo, as they cannot access regulated premises.

Anyone using an illegal tattooist is not only at greater risk of blood borne infections such as hepatitis and HIV, they are more likely to get a bad tattoo, which requires expensive removal or cover-up procedure.

Cllr Morris Bright, Vice Chairman of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“Illegal tattooists operating under the radar pose a real danger to people’s health as they often have low hygiene standards which could put your life at risk.

“They can use unsterilised equipment that seriously increases the risk of spreading diseases such as hepatitis or HIV, and causing permanent, ugly scarring. Unregulated tattooists are also associated with bad tattoos, which require expensive work to put right, and because they’ve been done illegally, you won’t have normal customers’ rights.

“These unregistered tattooists are undermining legitimate businesses and are often willing to illegally tattoo children by tempting them with pocket money prices, which can cause damage that lasts a lifetime.

“This issue is becoming more rife as people set up businesses from home and tattoo equipment is becoming more widely available and cheaper on the internet.

“We are urging young people under 18 and adults not to visit illegal tattooists or tattoo their friends or themselves using cheap tattoo equipment obtained online because the health risks are too great and there may be safeguarding concerns about the premises they are visiting. Online retailers also need to do much more to warn about the dangers.

“Prospective tattooists should register with their local council who can provide advice on legal requirements and appropriate hygiene practices.

“Anyone getting a tattoo should make sure they check both the premises and tattooist is registered. We would also encourage anyone who has visited an unregistered tattooist to seek medical advice from their GP and report the parlour to their local authority.”

Safety advice

Anyone having a tattoo should always check the following:

  • The establishment should be registered with the local council. If in doubt ask to see the registration certificate.
  • Check whether the person you’re dealing with has undergone recognised training and qualifications.
  • Ask to see examples of the person’s work.
  • Ensure that you have read and signed a consent and medical form.
  • Make sure tattoos are done with new needles. If you don’t see the needle removed from a sealed package, don’t allow the tattoo to be done.
  • Check that a proper tattoo ink is being used and that it is sterile at the start of your treatment.
  • The tattoo artist should always wash their hands and put on a fresh pair of medical-type gloves before each new procedure.
  • Ensure that you are given advice on the aftercare for your tattoo.

CASE STUDIES

  • South Holland District Council is raising awareness of unregistered tattooists during the summer when people may be considering getting a tattoo. It is advising people to make sure they only use a registered operator by visiting its list of locally registered skin piercers and to report any illegal practitioners.
  • Durham County Council has prosecuted two people after officers raided three homes as part of its ‘Catch a Scratcher’ campaign. A further man accepted a caution and two other illegal operators voluntarily surrendering their equipment. During the raids, officers seized more than 30 bags of equipment including 15 tattoo machines and hundreds of needles, many of which were out of date. A fast food bucket was being used to store contaminated waste and there were no suitable sterilisation measures in place at the premises.
  • Wrexham County Borough Council prosecuted a man for illegally tattooing children in his home at “pocket money prices” to children. He was fined a total of just over £600 for six offences and a court order was issued for the destruction of his tattooing equipment.
  • Preston City Council successfully prosecuted two people in a month for operating as illegal tattooists in their home kitchens. In separate cases, a man and a woman were ordered to pay £1,640 and £814, respectively, for the offences. In both cases some of their tattooing equipment they were using was not being sterilised effectively.
  • Peterborough City Council secured its first jail sentence against an illegal tattooist. The man was jailed for 16 weeks and ordered to pay costs of £260 after ignoring warnings from the council to register his home-based parlour. The man did not have adequate infection procedures in place, putting his clients at risk of infection.
  • Northampton Borough Council shut down an illegal tattoo studio and seized more than £2,000 worth of equipment. The studio had been set up in a spare room in a home and was not registered with the council. The evidence is being considered for potential prosecution.
  • Derbyshire County Council has launched a Tattoo Hygiene Rating Scheme (THRS) to help people find a registered tattooist that meets high standards of hygiene and professionalism.

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