Ink first, regret later

ASHAMED: Blenheim mum-of-three Vanessa Wills wishes she had never said yes to the cheaper ink she was offered by a Blenheim tattooist.
ASHAMED: Blenheim mum-of-three Vanessa Wills wishes she had never said yes to the cheaper ink she was offered by a Blenheim tattooist.

People think Blenheim woman Vanessa Wills tried to kill herself. She hasn't, she's just trying to hide a bad decision.

A spur-of-the-moment choice and the promise of a cheaper tat has left her with an infected tattoo on her wrist - a tattoo she now wishes she never had done.

She went to a tattoo studio to have a small heart tattooed on her wrist, with angel wings and a small locket. She wanted the heart coloured purple, but changed her mind to red at the last minute.

"He was like ‘Well red ink, I'll use these bottles and it will be cheaper for you' and I was like ‘Oh cool'. I paid $30 for it. Normally it costs $80 to $100.

"He used cheap ink to give me a better deal on getting a tattoo so I just thought ‘Oh I'm saving some money, why not?' And here I am."

That was three years ago.

Wills has seven tattoos. The one on her wrist is the only one she's had any real problem with. "It was fine for about six months and then it started getting itchy and I thought ‘maybe it's my moisturiser or something that has reacted to it' but then it just deteriorated and it got worse."

Wills also has a Care Bear tattoo on her calf that was "touched up" with the same red ink used on her wrist - there is now a dent in the bear's nose.

"It's like an allergic reaction and because it's not quality ink, my body rejected it. It was a bad call from him and from me."

Wills went to the doctor and was prescribed antiseptic cream, which "worked for a little while", she says.

It's now a waiting game. She has to wait for her body to reject the ink and let the skin heal before she can get it lasered off. "I have no idea how long it's going to take. Nobody can do anything. You can't treat something that's been tattooed into your skin."

She says the ironic thing is, she got it to cover up another scar. "I put my hand through a window when I was younger and so I had a scar and people thought it was a self-harm scar - so I got it tattoo to cover it.

"Now I've ended up with a horrible tattoo and when I cover it now people automatically think that I've tried to kill myself because I've got this plaster on it."

Vanessa Wills has just finished a Certificate in Business Administration and says she is finding it hard to get a job with her infected tattoo. She doesn't regret getting it - only the colour and where she got it on her body.

"If you ask anybody who's got one tattoo, one is not enough, you just like it, you get addicted.

"I've got a whole list of tattoos that I would love to be able to get - I just don't want this to happen again to another part of my body. It has really put me off."

She advises anyone considering a tattoo to give it serious thought, "and make sure that they're using the right ink even if it costs that wee bit more".

"It's worth it, it's so worth it.

"I think there definitely should be restrictions on inks."

Another 30-year-old Blenheim woman, who refers to her younger self as "young and dumb", has a horror story of her own.

The woman paid to have tattoos done by someone using a makeshift tattoo gun. "I've got a lot of home tattoos and all of them have been done in Blenheim . . . I got them done at home because they were cheaper. They said they did a really good job and their work was really good.

"Some of my tattoos were done with a toothbrush, a machine out of a toy and Indian ink."

These are tattoos she is now trying to fix. "I just want this s... gone."

She has tattoos on her arms, legs, back and chest. She doesn't know how many - she stopped counting after her 10th.

She has been to three home tattooists in Blenheim during the past seven years, most of them resulting in poor quality tattoos done with poor quality inks.

"I've also heard about people boiling the needles and re-using them . . . ones using the ink from a ballpoint pen."

After her bad experiences, why did she go back so many times?

"It's addictive."

Unsterile practices and poor quality inks are why tattoo artist Willy Wills - no relation to Vanessa Wills - is urging the Marlborough District Council to pass a bylaw.

The owner of Black Rose Tattoo Emporium and Body Piercing in Blenheim, Willy Wills wants tattooists to be made accountable, especially when it comes to health and safety.

He believes there are at least 20 people in the region working from home in less-than-sterile conditions.

The Express tried to contact three tattoo artists working from home. One continued to reschedule the interview and two did not answer their phones.

But a bylaw would cover only Marlborough. What about the rest of the country?

Who is responsible? Is it the Ministry of Health, the Environmental Protection Authority, Worksafe - or does it all rest solely on regional councils?

It is unclear.

In 2012, the Environmental Protection Authority released Guidelines for Tattoo and Permanent Makeup Substances, which outlined tattoo artists' responsibility to ensure the substances in tattoo inks are up to standard.

But the guidelines are voluntary.

The guideline states: "The risks from tattoos and permanent makeup come from both the chemical composition of the ink used and infection caused by unsafe practices. These risks are managed by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and the Ministry of Health, respectively."

The Ministry of Health said in a written statement it does not regulate the tattoo industry, although it had developed guidelines in consultation with the tattoo industry.

The Guidelines for the Safe Piercing of Skin, which includes tattooing, are aimed at helping operators to protect themselves and their clients from the risk of infection, while reducing harm and promoting healthy practices.

The responsibility for managing the risks from tattoo inks rests with the EPA, the ministry said.

An EPA spokesman said it regulates tattoo inks under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, via the Tattoo and Permanent Group Standard.

The EPA could not comment on the health and safety practices of tattooists, but suggested the Express talk to Worksafe. A Worksafe spokesperson said the Ministry of Health would be the best organisation to contact.

Willy Wills' biggest worry is that some tattooists are working with ink imported from China, which contains carcinogens such as arsenic.

The Ministry of Health conducted a survey last year that revealed high levels of heavy metals - including arsenic and lead - in imported tattoo inks. It tested 169 inks from 18 brands covering 118 colour-variants and found that 50 per cent did not comply with the EPA voluntary standard. The inks came from online stores in the United States, China and one from New Zealand.

Chinese imports of the brands Tattoo Color King and Intenze had the highest number of inks that did not meet the standard, containing high levels of arsenic and lead.

It is these types of inks that worry Willy Wills.

But tattooists with unhygienic tattoo practices using imported inks is not restricted to Marlborough - "it's happening everywhere," says Sharon Salmon, owner of Sharon Tattoo in Nelson.

"Here, we've got nine tattoo studios that are open and we've got another 20 people tattooing in their backyard - we call them ‘scratchers'.

"Tattoo artists, back in the day, used to work as a team. We had our own ethics, but today tattoo machines are so easily accessible. They are on Trade Me for about $100, which is really cheap and s..... gear. Your grandmother can get a tattoo gun.

"But what's happening is you've got these young tattooists coming into the industry, untrained, and they don't do their homework."

People wanting tattoos who are looking for something cheap are the ones at risk, Salmon says. "People just don't feel the worth of their bodies. It's like getting a boob job - you look for the cheapest option, for the cheaper way out . . . [and] that's really sad."

Another tattoo artist, who works out of a studio in Christchurch, says unhygienic, inexperienced tattooists are an increasing problem.

"People are picking up a [tattoo] gun that have no knowledge of hygiene standards. These guys are using cheap tattoo machines, cheap ink, cheap needles and have no overheads."

The man says he understands there are some "talented guys out there" who operate from home, but any business from home should be adhering to a standard.

"You've got guys that just throw a bit of ink in the skin . . . they leave behind a mess."

One of their biggest problems is education, he says. "[They are doing it] just because they like tattoos. I mean, I like tennis but that doesn't mean I'd be a good tennis player . . . it's a craft and you've got to practise and practise and practise."

They should practise by drawing on paper, not tattooing people, he says.

The Marlborough Express