According to the website of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Hepatitis C infects more Americans than any other infectious disease, with around 3.2 million current cases. New research is suggesting a possible link between Hepatitis C and home tattooing, a practise that is particularly common among Mercer students.
A recent VOICE survey of 35 randomly selected Mercer students found that 1 in 5 students had at least one tattoo done by someone without a license.
Carl (not his real name), a sophomore at Mercer who requested to remain anonymous, has four tattoos. Two are iconic Grateful Dead images, and the other two are stencils copying the designs of famed British graffiti artist, Banksy. One of them he refers to as a “kitchen table tattoo,” because that’s where he received it—at an un-sterile kitchen table.
“One of my friends told me that his friend had acquired a tattoo gun and was playing around with it,”
“Compared to the general population [in Philadelphia], about twice more youth investigated for reported HCV have tattoos,” Bel Hamdounia told The VOICE. She added, “about 15 percent [have] at least one tattoo done outside a commercial setting.”According Shadia Bel Hamdounia, Youth Hepatitis C Surveillance Coordinator for The Philadelphia Board of Public Health, Carl is lucky. Bel Hamdounia is leading a surveillance program in Philadelphia aimed at determining risk factors for the transmission of Hepatitis C with an eye toward prevention.
Although Bel Hamdounia cautions that, due to the preliminary nature of her findings, she cannot make a “causal claim,” the connection between tattooing and the spread of infectious disease is not exactly a revelation.
Two years ago, researchers from The University of British Columbia, along with The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, published a meta-analysis of 124 studies regarding tattoos and hepatitis C in the International Journal of Infectious Disease.
The report found: “Results of our systematic review indicate an increase in the risk of Hepatitis C infection among those who have tattooed.”
Mac, a professional tattoo artist at K & B Tattooing in Hightstown, NJ told The VOICE that, according to NJ State Law, “Everybody [working as a professional tattoo artist] has to have Hepatitis C shots.”
In his interview with The VOICE, Carl admitted to being well acquainted with the risk factors for the spread of infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C, because up until a year and a half ago, he was in and out of rehab for using heroin intravenously. He says that, during his time as a drug user, he would visit Philadelphia and the surrounding areas daily, “only for drugs.”
Knowledge of intravenous drug use was useful to Carl because it prompted him to take some precautions when he received his non-professional tattoo.
“Everything else in the room wasn’t sterilized,” he says, “but the needles were.”
That lack of a sterile environment is still a major concern to Bel Hamdounia, who said, “Hepatitis C is a sturdier virus …[it] can live outside the body for up to 72 hours, meaning the risk of transmission exists for a much longer period of time.” She added, “even…the ink can be a conduit of transmission.”
Ricky, 20 year-old math major at Mercer, who also requested anonymity, says he has given himself and a friend tattoos using a tattoo gun he made with a pen, a remote-controlled car motor, duct tape, a spoon, and guitar wire. He claims to have taken precautions to sterilize the wire (which is used to pierce the skin) before giving his friend a tattoo of a bicycle drawn in simple shapes.
“I soaked it in alcohol and boiled it in water” Ricky said. “Then heated it until it was red hot.” He also says he made sure to sterilize the location of the tattoo using an alcohol swab.
Despite his efforts, however, Ricky is out of compliance with NJ state law regarding tattooing. According to the chapter dealing with “Body Art Procedures,” in The New Jersey State Sanitary Code, not only must a practitioner have received 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, but the needles used in tattooing must come in hermetically-sealed “peel packs.”
Kiera Slate, a second-year Physical Therapist Assistant major has three tattoos, all given to her by the same friend, Keith, an intravenous heroin user with Hepatitis C. Slate insists that she takes special precautions when receiving a tattoo from him.
“I will not let Keith tattoo me if he’s under the influence. That’s just stupid.” Slate told The VOICE.
“I watch him set up a to make sure he’s pulling out clean needles and to make sure he’s ‘double gloving’” Slate adds.
Slate says she intends to receive more tattoos from Keith, in part because she enjoys the connection that she has formed with him during the tattooing process, and also because his prices are much lower than those found a professional parlor.
“For one of my tattoos, I bought Keith 20 dollars worth of booze,” Salte said, adding, “well, less than 20 dollars, because I drank some myself.”
In part due to her insistence on proper hygiene, Slate says she has not been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and she makes a point to get checked frequently.
According to the CDC website, however, most people do not get checked as often as Slate and most who are infected with the virus do not know they have it.
“The majority of infected persons might not be aware of their infection because they are not clinically ill,” says the CDC website on Hepatitis C.
One person at Mercer who does know he has Hepatitis C is Mr. B, 54, who brings his son to the college twice weekly for physical instruction. Mr. B., who also requested anonymity, gave himself a tattoo years ago with the help of his girlfriend at the time. Using a sewing needle wound with thread, he dipped the tip of the needle into India ink and then pricked his skin with it to form the image, a method known as “stick-and-poke.”
“I cannot recall any sterilization,” Mr. B. told The VOICE in a phone interview. “In those days there was no Hepatitis C, and this wasn’t hypodermic, so there wasn’t any thought of infection.”
Later in his life, Mr. B. began using intravenous drugs, and was subsequently diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Though he is certain the infection came from his drug use, he still regards his tattoo as a mistake, calling it “amateurish.”
“I would do anything possible to discourage people from doing this, whether professional or not,” he says. “It’s not art, it’s mutilation.”