Sanitation is a huge component of the tattoo industry and while there is some debate over certain procedures, there are some rules that should never be broken or bent under any circumstances. If you notice any of the red flags you're about to read about below, please for your own safety, get the hell out of that shop. For decades, the industry has worked to prove that tattooing is a clean and safe practice, therefore we don't need any reckless or lazy artists ruining things for the artists trying to create a professional environment.
1: There is No Sharps Box.
Every tattoo shop should have what is called a sharps box and it's where an artist disposes of their needles after a tattoo is complete. Needles and disposable cartridges should never, under any circumstances, be thrown into the trash. Also, if you see a sharps box that is overflowing with used needles, this can also be a red flag.
2. The Artist Doesn't Disinfect With MadaCide (or other industrial cleaning brands.)
After a tattoo is finished, an artist or their apprentice will break down their station and clean every possible surface. Tattoo artists should always use industrial cleaning products, like MadaCide, to clean up the massage bed,, arm rests, chairs, and their entire station. If you see them using Clorox wipes, run.
3. There is No Autoclave.
While some tattooers today use disposable cartridges for a rotary machine, many artists still use metal tubes with a coil machine. Of course, artists should no better than to reuse their needles, however, they all reuse the metal tube that holds the needle in place. Artists use what is called an autoclave to sanitize their tubes, which is a machine used by hospitals to sterilize medical instruments. If you see an artist using metal tubes, be sure to ask if they have an autoclave on site.
4. They Don't Use Clip Cord Covers.
A clip cord connects the tattoo machine to the power source and it should always be wrapped in plastic. During the set up process, an artist will put a plastic sleeve over the cord to ensure proper sanitation during the tattoo. And this goes without saying but an artist should use a new cover for every single tattoo.
5. They Don't Wrap Their Tattoo Machines or Green Soap Bottles.
Tattooers reuse their green soap bottles and machines every day, however, they always need to ensure that their supplies are wrapped in plastic. Some artists use special bags to wrap their bottles, while others prefer using saran wrap. Either will suffice as long as they're new for each and every tattoo.
6. They Don't Use Distilled Water.
In order to prevent the spread of bacteria, artists should always use distilled water in their rinse cup. You should never see a tattooer filling up their rinse cup in the sink.
7. They Don't Use Bed Covers.
During the tattoo, there should always be a bed cover or layer of saran wrap between you and the massage bed or arm rest. This keeps your fresh tattoo away from anything that might harm it and it makes the cleanup process a bit easier for the artist. Also, "people shouldn't unwrap an armrest to make for a better photo of the tattoo resting on it." says Joice Wang of Grit N Glory.
8. They Don't Display Their Bloodborne Pathogens Certificate.
All states require some type of certification that ensures an artist has completed their bloodborne pathogens and infection control training. You should also check if their certificate is up to date and hasn't expired.
9. There is Trash Everywhere.
If there is trash all over the shop or if the trash can is overflowing, this is a sign that the shop may not be clean. There should never be open food around an artist's station while they're tattooing and if an artist is handling trash, they need to change their gloves before handling any tattoo equipment or a client.
10. They Don't Use Pre-Packaged Needles or Disposable Cartridges.
This is a big one and it should be a no brainer. Under no circumstances should a tattooer use an unpackaged or worse, a used needle to do a tattoo. Even if a tattoo artist is doing another tattoo on the same client, they need to change their needles. Seriously, if you notice needles out of the package, get the hell out of there.
11. They Have a Dirty Bathroom.
You can tell a lot about a person's cleanliness based on the state of their bathroom. A shop should be clean from the moment you step through the door to the bathroom in the back, with no exceptions. If a bathroom is visibly dirty or smells bad, then they may not be up to code in the sanitation department.
12. They Don't Change Out Their Gloves.
Seriously, do we even need to explain this one? An artist should obviously be using a new pair of gloves between every tattoo, however, they also need to change their gloves if they touch anything outside of the sterilized station. And if their gloves tear during the tattoo, it's time for a new pair.
13. They Use Expired Ink.
This may be a bit tricker to detect, however, if an ink has really gone bad you will be able to see the ink separating in the bottle and a layer of oil forming on the top. "Remember, ink expires a year after opening the bottle" says Saga Anderson of Boss Tattoo. Additionally, there should be nothing floating inside the bottle of ink.