An estimated one in five adults now has a tattoo. And even though it's illegal for anyone under 18 to get one in Oregon and Washington plenty of teens are getting them. The tattoo ban applies to kids under 14 in Idaho. There are some serious health consequences to consider if tattoos are not given safely. Sharing a needle, for instance, can spread certain diseases like hepatitis and HIV. The state of Oregon has rules designed to protect people, but these rules aren't always followed.
"Yeah, the one on my neck is underage," admits Leray Roske, now 23.
When she was 17, she said she made a very bad decision. "My friend just put a tattoo gun together and did it," she said. Looking back now, she said "I regret both my tattoos because they're permanent. They're there for life and I didn't really plan it through."
State officials are concerned that, in the last three years, they've seen an increase in the number of people giving tattoos out of their homes.
"You can have a home facility. You just have to have it licensed," said Kraig Bohot, public information officer with the Oregon Health Licensing Agency. "Unlicensed tattooing activity is really what's been an issue [over] the last several years," he said.
But the task of finding people breaking the law can be daunting. A total of four investigators are charged with keeping tabs on all body piercing and tattoos in the state of Oregon. That includes "artists" tattooing minors.
"There seems within [the past] year, we get four or five complaints about tattooing minors. It's an ongoing issue and an ongoing concern," said Bohot.
"We've had some parents call the shop and ask if their minors have gotten tattoos here and describe the tattoo because they're looking for the artist that did it. Luckily, it wasn't us," said Kristi Rathert, the manager at Infinity Tattoo.
Artists at Infinity Tattoo are all licensed and very careful about who they ink.
"It doesn't matter if you're 18 or if you're 80, we card everybody," said Rathert. "It can be extremely dangerous."
"You don't want to take the risk," said tattoo artist Alice Kendall.
Kendall has been a tattoo artist for 12 years. "You have to protect yourself and your clients," said Rathert, because a risky tattoo can carry serious consequences.
"Some of the infections, when there have been outbreaks, have actually been contaminated ink itself so it needs to be coming from a reputable company," said Katrina Hedberg, MD, Oregon State Epidemiologist.
"I think the main thing is for people to be fully aware of what they're getting into," she added.
Dylan Woolf has several tattoos. He says he always checks for a clean needle coming straight out of a sterile container. He has advice for minors who are thinking about getting one: "It was definitely good to wait."
LeRay Roske, who got her first tattoo while still a teen, agrees. "Think it through. Think the precautions, the safety and that it's going to stay on your body for the rest of your life," she said.
The Oregon Health Licensing Agency admits there are some improvements that could be made in their system right now, including what the customer can find out online about a tattoo artist.
The state gets a handful of complaints a year. But, from what we discovered, it can be hard to tell just how widespread the problem really is, because the state only gets wind of problems if someone files a complaint or they do a spot inspection.
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