KENT COUNTY, Mich. — They are called 'scratchers' and they are a growing concern for area county health officials.
The term refers to tattoo artists practicing without a license, which is illegal in most states including Michigan, and they are usually doing it right out of their own homes.
While the offers they advertise seem like good deals with prices usually much cheaper than professional tattoo shops, Kent County health officials warn they could be putting people's health at serious risk.
At the Magnum Tattoo Shop on Division Ave. in Grand Rapids, Eric Torres says he's seen plenty of cases of people with poorly done and oftentimes infected tattoos coming into the shop to get them fixed.
He says the mantra he and the other professional artists in his field live by is simple: cheap tattoos aren't good and good tattoos aren't cheap.
“People want to go get a good deal and they’re not going to get a good deal, they’re going to get sick or they’ll get a crappy tattoo and it’s ultimately going to cost them more in the long run," Torres said.
“There’s a lot of things that go into tattooing that the Average Joe doesn’t know about… and a bad tattooer or a home tattooer really invests in the fact that most people on average don’t know what the process is about."
The Kent County Health Department recently issued a warning against these so-called 'scratchers' who continue to be a growing problem posing serious health risks in the community, according to Shane Green, supervising sanitarian with the health department.
“What they’re doing is they’re opening people up to solid types of blood borne infectious issues, staph infections, even HIV, the hepatitis virus, from going to these people who aren’t licensed or regulated," Green said.
“A lot of theses ‘scratchers’ don’t have the proper equipment to sterilize their equipment, they haven’t had proper training on blood borne pathogens and they’re just doing it in an environment that isn’t safe or sterile."
With the number of complaints slightly up this year, Green says the county health department has investigated more than 10 different instances of people illegally tattooing just in the past few months.
Green said the problem became magnified after the law passed in 2010 requiring tattoo artists to meet strict guidelines to maintain their licenses. Those who didn't follow went "underground" where they are able to get equipment on the cheap from websites like eBay or Craigslist.
“Anyone can order it, they think they’re an artist and start practicing on themselves or their friends and say ‘hey I can start making money this way’ and they start advertising on Facebook and it just starts growing," Green said.
A quick check online revealed a starter tattoo kit goes for just about $60 on eBay.
The health department relies on tips from the public to catch the 'scratchers' and Green says with an address or a phone number, they can set up a sting or issue a cease and desist to the individual. If the problem persists after the cease and desist Green said individuals can be issued an appearance ticket requiring them to go in front of a job where they could face up to 90 days in jail or up to a $2,500 fine.
The county hasn't had a situation escalate to someone receiving an appearance ticket yet this year.
“A lot of these illegals see it as an easy way to make money, they work from home, the equipment is cheap but unfortunately they are endangering the public’s health," Green said.
At the shop where Torres works, he says they are held to a "laundry list" of requirements by the state health department which now helps regulate tattoo facilities following strict regulations passed in 2010.
“Every one of our artists are blood borne pathogen certified, we know how to break down our equipment and set it up, we’re not cross contaminating and bringing bad stuff back into our work area," he said.
Magnum also has a $5,000 sterilization system for cleaning equipment and maintains a detailed log of how equipment is sterilized, and when and who it's used on in order to keep track in case a contamination occurs.
"We know exactly everything that comes out, should someone get sick," Torres said. "We can look at their batch number, what was sterilized, look at clients before and after them, sort everything out and have sort of infection control plan."
To find out if tattoo shop or body art facility in Michigan is properly licensed, a list can be found on the Michigan Department of Community Health website.