Grand Forks public health officials are cracking down on tattoo "privateers" operating out of unlicensed home or apartment parlors, undercutting the business of the city's four licensed tattoo operations and potentially risking the spread of hepatitis and other diseases.
"We have a tattoo ordinance in town and we have some properly licensed businesses doing tattooing, but we also have a number of illegal tattooing operations going on," said Jim Schothorst, an environmental health sanitarian with the Grand Forks Public Health Department.
Acting with law enforcement officers, "we shut down an illegal tattoo operation (Tuesday) morning" on the south side of Grand Forks, he said.
He said there could be "half a dozen or more" still operating.
"There's been an explosion recently in tattooing," he said. "I don't have a problem with that -- no problem at all. But our ordinance very specifically says you can't operate out of your house."
Such residential operations, flying under official radar, often fail to meet health standards. They also attract customers younger than 18, who by law can't get a tattoo without parental permission.
"It's very concerning to me," Schothorst said. "I want to say to these people: I will go after you. I will find out who you are, the police will be involved, and you will go to court.
"If you want to get into this business and do it legally, come and see me. I'll help you."
Schothorst said he has a personal interest in seeing that legal standards are met in the delivery of tattoos.
"A friend of mine got a tattoo down in Sturgis," the western South Dakota site of the nation's largest annual motorcycle rally, he said. "He got hepatitis C and was really sick. It's not fun. It's a lifelong disease that you battle.
"We're trying to reach these people operating illegally, track them down and take them to municipal court," where they face fines of $500 a day, Schothorst said.
No to 'scratchers'
Grand Forks has four licensed tattoo parlors, including Dark Side Tattooing, which recently moved from East Grand Forks into a former dental office on South Washington Street.
Co-owners Bryon Burdick and Arran Brown, who refer to unlicensed competitors as "scratchers," said they favor rigorous enforcement of tattooing regulations.
"Those people give tattooing a bad reputation," Brown said, watching as Burdick inked a yellow boa constrictor onto the left arm of Matt Riske, 25, Fisher, Minn. The finished snake will be shrouded in vines.
"I like art," Riske said. "And I'm confident in their work."
Some of the people who try to start up a home tattooing business may be exceptional artists, Brown and Burdick said, but that doesn't immediately make them good tattoo artists. And by scrimping on health safeguards, "They're putting the whole community at risk," Burdick said.
Because the tattoo business involves altering the body, most states have laws imposing strict health standards including the type of tools that can be used, how those tools should be cleaned or disposed of, and how the studio itself should be cleaned and maintained. Operators must maintain records identifying customers, their ages and tattoos.
Parlors usually are required to have an autoclave sterilizer to apply intense heat and pressure to reusable materials. They have hazardous waste collection receptacles for disposable items.
North Dakota initially left regulation of tattoo businesses, including enforcement of health laws, to local authorities. But after the tattoo industry began to grow and spread into rural areas, the Legislature in 2007 adopted an extensive list of requirements to guide local authorities, said Kenan Bullinger, director of the state Health Department's food and lodging division, which was given inspection authority for tattoo parlors, tanning salons and other operations.
Under the Grand Forks ordinance, a tattoo parlor must obtain a license and operate out of a licensed facility.
"The main requirement is that a person doing tattoos must have had a series of three hepatitis vaccinations, so they can't pass hepatitis on to the people they're tattooing," Schothorst said.
The series of vaccinations is given over a six-month period, he said.
"Also, we want to know what system they're using. Are they using disposable needles? If you're getting tattooed, you sure don't want to get tattooed with a machine that was used on someone with hepatitis B."
Licensed tatters 'do things right'
Licensed parlors must have a hand sink available where the tattooing is done. Other cleaning requirements apply to walls, floors and ceilings, and those health standards may require obtaining a building permit as well as electrical and other inspections.
"Licensed operators around town do everything right," Schothorst said. "Then, these scofflaws do it in their own homes and, with lower costs, undercut the legal ones."
The other licensed Grand Forks tattoo operations are Branded Man, Lil Rico's Art Studio and Tatts and Attractions, which offers only cosmetic tattooing.
Lil Rico's was the first to be licensed, in January 2007, according to city licensing records.
"Fargo was the first city in North Dakota to really get involved in regulating tattoo parlors," Schothorst said. "At the time, we didn't have any places in town, but we copied Fargo's ordinance," anticipating that some would come.
"The only thing we changed was we included a background check, same as what's required for a liquor license or a mobile food vendor."
Magoo's Tattoos & Piercing Parlor on U.S. Highway 2 advertises itself as "the oldest, most experienced in the state" and has been providing tattoo services regionally for many years, but it is outside the Grand Forks city limits.
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