John, 55, operates from his home in Footscray, Melbourne. He’s been tattooing for most of his life, beginning with needles and Indian ink at the age of 11, progressing to homemade machines when he was 14.
“When I tattoo, I’m just zoned into tattooing and zone out from everything else,” he says. “I love it. It’s my buzz in life. My dream is to have a full body suit before I die.”
Like many amateur tattoo artists, John got much of his experience in prison. He was in a youth training centre from the age of 11 and has spent much of his adult life incarcerated for various offenses, including armed bank robbery and drug related crimes. He has been free and clean for 20 years.
“I was institutionalised from when I was 11 until 20 years ago,” John said. “When I was in prison we made a tattoo machine up from a cassette motor, a bit of wire and a toothbrush. And in art class we used the charcoal... and off we go.”
“In prison it was one needle and we’d tattoo 20 people with it and you know, who cares,” he said, laughing. “seventy-five per cent of people have tattoos in prison and are always wanting more. It helped me to shut my mind up. Sort of meditation.”
Maryanne met John at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and has been coming to John for tattooing since January this year. She cites cost as the reason she has chosen not to go to a licensed tattoo parlour.
“Some of the tattooists ask prices that I can’t afford. It’s about $130 per hour depending on what you want to get done. So the tattoo I want would be close to two grand by now,” she said. “Plus I have a good relationship with him, a good bond.”
James Bird, a professional tattooist at Green Lotus in Brunswick in Melbourne, has been a licensed tattooist for nearly 10 years. He believes the risks involved with backyard tattooing are serious.
“The best case scenario is you’re going to walk away with a bad tattoo,” said Bird. “And it only gets worse from there. You take all sorts of health risks.”
He said the rising popularity of tattoos has fuelled the growth in the number of unlicensed operators.
“People of all ages and walks of life get tattoos these days,” he said. “Some people get them for particular meaning, some for fashion. Some people get them as a form of cathartic healing.”
“There was once a time when I would say most of my customers were probably low to middle class people, but these days there is no demographic that is untouched,” he said. “I did an 88-year-old woman – her granddaughter’s name on her. And then the youngest was someone who had just turned 18.”
“The flip side is it has got a lot of people interested in becoming tattooists and because of this it has had a bit of a boom of backyarder tattooing, which is definitely the downside of popularity.”
“I don’t know any backyard tattooists, which is good because it’s a bit insulting to people who have put the time and effort and passion in to being a professional,” he said.
Associate Professor Martin Weltman, Head of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Nepean Hospital, has seen the effects of poor tattooing first hand. He mentions skin and tissue infections at the site of the tattoo as the primary risk, as well as transmission of diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B & C from contaminated needles.
People are not aware of the health risks when they go to a backyard tattooist,” he said. “You’re potentially exposing yourself to the same risks as picking up drugs on the street and injecting.”
“We had a patient who acquired Hepatitis C from a backyard tattoo in his teens. He passed away at 50 this year from liver cancer, which is untreatable,” he said.
“The cost to the health system is huge. The cost to society is huge.”
Registration and licensing laws vary between states. In Victoria, it is a legal requirement to register a business with the local council. Health Services conduct an on-site inspection of the premises. In New South Wales and Queensland, a tattooist must hold a current license to legally operate a business.
“I haven’t had a check from the health department,” said John. “I’ve thought about it a lot because it takes me away from my fear.”
Hal Chesire, a colleague of James at Green Lotus, believes the current regulation needs to change to recognise the experience of tattoo artists.
“The Australian Tattooist Guild sees the current legalisation as irresponsible,” he says. “It definitely doesn’t promote the integrity or sustainability or the culture of tattooing. There is a huge amount of heritage in this craft.”
Currently anyone can get a license to become a tattoo artist. The guild’s submission asks for stricter standards for licensing, and for experienced artists to be able to receive accreditation for their expertise, along with current OH&S standards.
John maintains his tattooing space is safe and clean, and would pass a health department check. He uses new needles for each client, and cleans the area with Viroclear and Dettol. He also disposes of needles in a professional-standard waste container. However, he does not have a separate sterilisation room, which licensing requires.
He claims that most artists start out at home. “I’m not 100 per cent sure, but I’m pretty sure everyone starts out in homes with their mates. We’ve all got to start somewhere. And I choose not to work in a shop.”