The popularity of tattoos is growing, and that has the state of Minnesota looking for a little help enforcing its tattoo regulations -- and the FOX 9 Investigators found out they need it.
Some may think tattoo artists would be renegades who resist regulation, preferring instead to fly below the radar -- but the real professionals worry the untrained and unlicensed artist are giving them all a bad name.
Now, state Senators like Jeff Hayden are considering whether lawmakers should enhance protection for the thousands of people who get inked because of artists like the ones FOX 9 Investigators caught undercover.
One man just south of the metro is an artist who advertises on Craigslist, but he doesn't have a shop to hang his shingle on. He makes house calls, and that is a horrifying prospect for the man the state hired to keep tabs on more than 800 licensed artists.
"That would be frightening -- concerning to me," said Matt Duff, with the Minnesota Department of Health.
The problem is this: The artist advertising online is a licensed apprentice. That means he's still training and should work under the supervision of a professional -- but that isn't happening. Worse still, the state never inspects the equipment he takes on the road.
The artist explained his operation to an undercover FOX 9 producer, telling him he sterilizes everything with surgical soap and displaying a traveling array of needles and tubes.
"Peel this open and you are good to go," he said. "I use gloves. You're not allergic to latex or anything?"
When the FOX 9 Investigators called him back for comment, he did not call back.
In a licensed body art shop, it's all about cleanliness. Drawing on the body draws blood, so a licensed artist needs to be about as careful as a doctor or nurse when dealing with needles and splatter.
"There are very tremendous risks of infection if you are working in an unclean establishment -- anything from blood-borne pathogens, Hepatitis to skin infections," Huff told FOX 9.
That's why the floors, walls, and all other surfaces need to be easily cleaned -- and a separate sink and entrance is required under state law. None of those were seen in an unlicensed, in-home tattoo shop the FOX 9 Investigators visited.
A man named John told an undercover producer he tattoos in his parlor, where there's carpeting on the floor, a toddler toddling in and out, and a cat prowling. When the FOX 9 Investigators went back a few weeks later, he admitted he does not have a license.
"Anywhere in the Midwest, you don't need a license," he said.
When FOX 9 Investigator Trish Van Pilsum introduced herself and told him he was supposed to carry a license, he replied, "I was misinformed."
When asked how many tattoos he has given from his home, he said "only a couple" but did not want to talk other than to insist his conditions were sanitary and to slam the door when asked to show them.
Unlicensed tattoo artists offer dramatically cheaper prices -- $30 instead of $100, but Huff warns that the risk isn't worth the money saved.
"Aside from the fact it's illegal -- yes, it's cheaper, but who knows where they are cutting corners in order to cut costs," Huff said.
The Department of Health hopes people will turn in unlicensed artists, but those who have filed reports about unlicensed shops say not much has happened.
"There are a lot of people doing this under the table," Candice Mickkelson, who owns Second Skin Tattoo in New Prague, told FOX 9. "There's nobody here to enforce this stuff."
Mickkelson said she turned in an artist who is still inking out of his basement. When asked over the phone why he hasn't gotten a license, he explained he was too lazy and was not hurting anyone.
Records show the state has closed down some unlicensed operations -- a total of five since licensing began in July 2010; however, there's just one inspector and he spends much of his time just trying to keep up with the inspections and complaints aimed at licensed shops.
The complaints on licensed artists in the past year included evidence of three that were tattooing minors and one who lied on a license application --- but no licensed artist has been cited for hurting a client or making them sick since the inspection program began.
According to the FDA, the most common problems are infections, allergies to certain inks, scarring and bumps -- which are symptoms of the body rejecting the pigment.
Duff inspects each shop at least once every three years, and he warns them ahead of time -- which may be why the inspector hardly ever finds problems. The FOX 9 Investigators poured through reports from 121 inspections conducted since the program began, but the inspector only took action a handful of times -- and then only for paperwork problems.
Back at the Capitol, the issue is not abstract for either lawmakers or lobbyists because while there may not be empirical evidence of injuries, there are plenty of anecdotes being shared.
That's why lawmakers are trying to carve out new legislation to deal with it by giving police the power to investigate unlicensed artists -- and that's an idea many licensed artists like the look of. The bill will be introduced on Wednesday in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Until then, how is it possible to tell a scratcher from a professional? The state lists all licensed artists online here: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/hpsc/hop/tattoo/brochure.html
Some cities also regulate their own body artists, and the state is in the process of hiring another investigator to deal with tattoo complaints.