Tattoos drawing attention

Josh Honeybone has Yoda tattooed on his arm by Silas Waring, of Painted Rock Tattoos. Mr Waring...
Josh Honeybone has Yoda tattooed on his arm by Silas Waring, of Painted Rock Tattoos. Mr Waring says professional tattoo ...
Tattoo artists Veronica Brett (left) and Devon Smith work at Agency Inc. Miss Brett   estimates...
Tattoo artists Veronica Brett (left) and Devon Smith work at Agency Inc. Miss Brett estimates up to 25% of their work comes from fixing up botched at-home tattooing jobs. Photos by Eleanor Ainge Roy

Tattooing, once a fringe, minority pursuit, is going mainstream in Dunedin, local tattoo artists say, with everyone from law students to nurses inking their skin.

But, the council says as legitimate operations flourish, there has been a spike in tattooing of the underground, backyard variety, too.

There were eight registered tattoo studios in Dunedin, but many more illegal operators were working out of private homes, with no training, risky hygiene practices and cheap tools and ink, Dunedin City Council Environmental Health and Animal Services manager Ros MacGill said.

Ms MacGill said the council first became aware of the problem when unregistered tattoo artists started advertising their work on social media in 2013.

Since January 2014, the council had received four official complaints from the public.

Ms MacGill said unregistered tattooists were ''very difficult to prosecute'', and their presence was of significant concern.

''I do get the feeling that there are more out there than we are aware of,'' Ms MacGill said.

''It has become more of a problem in the last five years as equipment is so easy to procure cheaply off the internet.''

The Dunedin City Council has been working with police and the Hepatitis C Resource Centre Otago to try to combat the problem, but hepatitis C health promoter Allison Beck said they were fighting an uphill battle.

''Anecdotally, yes I can say we have seen an increase in hepatitis C traced back to unsafe backyard tattooing jobs,'' she said.

''Tattooing is a lot more accessible than it ever used to be, and that popularity is definitely playing a part in the rise of backyard tattooists, who are often keen to practise on their friends or make a few extra bucks.''

Ms Beck said because hepatitis C was stigmatised and ''not being discussed by the community'', people were unaware there were many ways to be infected, including from inadequately sterilised home tattooing equipment.

Agency Inc Tattoo artist Veronica Brett estimated up to 25% of their work came from fixing up botched home tattooing jobs, and she was routinely ''shocked'' by the poor quality of the work and the risks people ran.

''Tattooing is becoming a real cultural phenomenon and anyone who is good at art thinks they can tattoo their mates,'' she said.

Agency Inc charged between $100 and $150 an hour for tattooing, but backyard jobs were ''much cheaper'', Miss Brett had heard, sometimes ''$50 or a case of beer''.

'' I just don't know how things go so wrong [with at-home tattooing],'' Miss Brett said.

''The art will be wonky, the ink will have changed colour or leaked, words are misspelt. We often get at-home tattooists coming in and wanting to talk about tattooing with us, but we always say it's not a good idea, it's not safe.''

Painted Rock tattoo artist Silas Waring said before the internet, tattooing used to be ''a lot more closed book, it was who you knew''.

''The stuff coming from China at the moment is totally unregulated, and the inks can be laced with heavy metals and toxins,'' Mr Waring said.

''Underground tattooing is huge in Dunedin. There are a lot of dangerous operators working from home.''

Mr Silas said professional tattoo artists had a responsibility to guide their clients towards making good decisions, as a tattoo was ''a significant, life-long decision''.

''I won't tattoo on the face, I won't do gang-related stuff and I rarely do the hands. Tattoos are definitely mainstream now, but it is still a big decision.''

Student Josh Honeybone (19) has four tattoos. He has spent about $800 on the art.

''Tattoos are addictive,'' he said, barely flinching as Mr Waring inked his arm.

''You are born with a body but tattoos are a way of making it your own.''

- by Eleanor Ainge Roy 

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