Piercing Remarks

In Arizona, swine feeding, dead chicken handling, cheese making, emu slaughtering, minnow selling and manicuring are regulated industries with state-enforced rules, permits and inspectors to make sure these activities are performed responsibly.

But the state doesn't care quite as much about responsible clitoris piercing. In Arizona, the burgeoning body modification industry is unregulated, and operates on the principle of buyer beware. A business license and a city use permit stating the intent of the business are all tattoo and piercing shop owners are required to obtain.

Now, some Tempe tattoo and body piercers have banded together to push for change. They'd like to see Tempe take a closer look at how these businesses operate, and would even welcome a more active government role in regulating the tattoo and piercing trade. When disease and infection are the consequences of sloppy work, they argue, industry-wide regulations would prevent some of the problems they've seen in recent weeks.

The body modification business is booming. Ten years ago, Living Canvas was the only tattoo and piercing shop in Tempe. Today, there are 10 such businesses in a four-block radius. Established shop owners say that new businesses open all the time, and that many lack even the most basic proper use permits (a description of the business's intended activity required by the city). They tattoo and pierce minors, and have questionable hygiene practices. These shop owners know because they are tired of fixing other tattoo and piercing artists' mistakes. The city, they say, doesn't seem to care.

"I had a guy come in last week with severe nerve damage to the entire right side of his tongue because the piercer didn't use the proper equipment," says Steve Haworth, owner of HTC Precision Body Piercing.

He says the piercer must have used traditional medical forceps without modifying them for piercing, a standard practice. "It's not ethical to make mistakes like that in this industry," Haworth says.

Haworth says the man with the injured tongue came from Motif Tattoo and Piercing Gallery, a shop that opened in September next to Ruby Tuesday on Mill Avenue. The damaged tongue, Haworth and others say, is just one in a parade of many botched jobs, primarily from Motif, they have seen come into their shops in recent weeks.

Like Haworth, Sean Dowdell is tired of seeing teenage girls with pus-filled navels, tired of digging jewelry out of soft tissue, tired of cleaning up other people's messes. Dowdell has owned Club Tattoo for nine years, and has a satellite shop in San Diego. He says he deals with 10 to 15 customers a week, many of them minors, who come to him with complaints after getting inked or pierced at Motif.

This worries him. "There are bad things going on at Motif," Dowdell says. "Last Saturday a 16-year-old girl came in after getting her navel pierced at Motif. Her jewelry was literally embedded in her skin and we had to remove it and put in a new ring."

This is not the kind of business Dowdell wants. He's angry enough that he says he and other tattoo and piercing shops plan to start documenting complaints about Motif's work they see, taking affidavits from clients and presenting them to the city.

Dowdell says he has called the city to complain about Motif but nothing has been done. "Government doesn't care. If we were talking about a restaurant putting out bad food, they'd be shut down immediately."

Jan Koehn, code compliance manager for the City of Tempe, says that her office has received complaints about Motif. Koehn also says that, although Motif doesn't have a use permit (an application was submitted October 24), "unless there's an immediate health or safety and welfare issue, we let them continue to operate until that application is either approved or denied."

Club Tattoo's clients are pierced in sterile rooms with foot-operated sinks. The air they breathe is purified by hepa filters. The equipment used is sterilized in a bio room with an air-lock system of two doors. Dowdell won't even touch the door of the bio room without gloves on. He tests his autoclave monthly for spores and posts the results in the shop. He's serious about hygiene, and makes sure those who work for him follow the same standards. His life is as much at stake as those of his customers. "You have to be serious when there's blood involved," he says.

Karie Witt, owner and manager of Motif, admits her shop is operating without a valid use permit, a fact she blames on a less-than-scrupulous business partner whom she declines to name. "He handled all the licensing and filled out all the paperwork. It wasn't until three weeks into it that I realized he was pulling something over on me. I had no idea he had not handled things correctly until I fired him."

Witt denies tattooing or piercing minors, and says that she fired her piercer last week when she discovered he "wasn't the best," and had "problems with cleanliness." Witt is confident that her new piercer is competent and well-versed in hygiene.

Witt says she is familiar with blood-borne pathogens and hazardous waste disposal, based on experience from a previous business she owned in the construction industry. Motif autoclaves everything, she says, and its piercing and tattooing areas are completely sterile.

"I respect anybody who does quality work," says HTC piercer Mercedes Lincoln. "It needs to be nice, clean and sharp. But I'm seeing a lot of people come in from Motif with complaints. It gives our industry a bad name."

Lincoln says those contemplating a piercing or tattoo need to be careful about whom they choose. "Look at their portfolios; you need to see examples of their work. Ask to see their autoclave, make sure they have training in disease prevention, blood-borne pathogens and CPR."

At HTC the discipline is rigorous in disease prevention. A glassed-in bio room houses the autoclaves used to sterilize needles and equipment. Biohazard boxes collect medical waste.

"I hate to see people get hurt," Lincoln says, as she leads a young man into her sterile booth and pokes a 12-gauge stainless-steel needle through his tongue. "If you're going to have someone put a needle in you, make sure they know what the hell they are doing."

Shop owners, including Witt, want government to step in and regulate their industry. They see it as a way to assure the public that the person putting a needle into their skin knows what they are doing. They plan to take their complaints to the city council.

Hawaii is one of a dozen states that has enacted legislation to regulate the body modification industry. Tattoo artists and piercers must pass a written examination proving they are knowledgeable in bacteriology and aseptic techniques. They are tested for TB and syphilis, and shops must follow stringent hygiene regulations. They are subject to random inspections. In Alaska, legislation was enacted in 2000 only after an outraged mother complained to the press that a man pierced her 15-year-old daughter's clitoris while high on cocaine using needles he sterilized in a pressure cooker.

"That's what it is going to take here," Dowdell says. "It will take some rich politician's kid to get tattooed and screwed up for something to happen."