The Dangers of Being Tattooed Outside of a Studio - Part One: At-Home Artists

I want to start things off by saying that no two tattoo artists are the same, including at-home artists. I want to emphasize on the fact that, while this article pertains to a vast majority of people who work out of their homes, there are is a very small percentage of tattoo artists that simply can't afford owning a store, or don't want to but are licensed and treat the tattoo as an industry, and not a game. This article, is directly speaking about the risks associated with going to an unlicensed tattooist that is unaware of the seriousness of tattooing and treats it as a hobby. While there is always the chance of infection or lack of quality with tattoos, someone working out of their home increases those chances exponentially, which is why tattooing out of your home is illegal in many U.S. states, and parts of the world. This article is meant to be informative, not to attack individual artists.

Okay so we've all heard the horror stories: you know someone who knows someone who got a tattoo from their best friend's cousin, and it ended up looking scraggly and was eventually covered up or removed. Maybe you've read a story about the man who contracted a flesh-eating disease and decided to sue the artist for his massive medical bills. Either way, some people are horrified to the point where they think that tattoos are just bad ideas in general, or people will turn their heads away and say, "It could never happen to me." If you're anything like me, you wonder how exactly an atrocity such as that could have occurred, and what led to it. Well, alas, this is exactly what this article is about!

Skill, or Lack Thereof

The first thing I can think of when it comes to tattooists that work in their home or make house calls, also known as, “Scratchers,” is why they don’t have their own studio; the reason why is pretty much that because they can’t get enough business to open up their own shop, or they can’t get hired by a local one. Why? Because, 98%, they simply don’t have the skill.

A lot of the time, tattoo artists go to art school to hone a raw talent they already possess; I’m not saying this is present in every artist, especially with those who have been tattooing for a number of decades, but, it’s a quality that’s increasingly becoming a standard that needs to be met. After speaking to a number of shop owners in my area, I’ve learned that many tattoo parlors won’t even consider taking in an artist that hasn’t had previous art experience.

Anyways, after going to a school anyone who wants to be a tattoo artist is usually taken on as an apprentice – in other words, they go through an internship. During this internship, they're tought everything they need to know about tattooing: how to hold the machine, how to keep clean, how deep they need to penetrate the skin and how deep is too deep, and so on. In most cases, the apprenticeship lasts about 1-3 years. After that, the shop owner decides if they want to keep the apprentice as a full-time employee or not. So when you see someone that tattoos out of their home, it’s safe to assume that they either haven’t had formal training or they had the training and never made the cut.

Why is that so important? Scratchers are notorious for delivering painful tattoos because they don't know how to hold the tattoo machine correctly. They almost always penetrate the skin too deep and the result is a lot of bleeding, a lot of crying and a lot of scarring. If they aren't going too deep, though, they're too shallow and this is where the term, "Scratchers," comes from. This is when they just scrape the surface and don't make it past the first or second skin layer, so when the time comes for the healing process, the ink just peels away and you're left with some abhorrent speckled mess.

Another reason as to why formal training is so important is, of course, because tattoo machines vibrate and if you don't have complete control over your hand, you're going to deliver shaky lines and wobbly shading. The end result is a tattoo that looks more like a child's drawing.

Health Risks

Lack of skill aside, there are a massive amount of health risks to take into consideration:

The Use of the Kitchen

Kitchens are one of the most disgusting rooms in the average household, second only to the bathroom. This also happens to be where a vast majority of home-tattooists perform their work, hence the popular term, “Kitchen magicians.” The reason for this is because that at-home, “Artists,” think that it’s a perfect place to tattoo since you can so easily clean the surfaces with things like ammonia or bleach. But bleach doesn’t kill everything.

Kitchens are full of food-borne bacteria that simply can’t be avoided unless you obsessively clean your home with bleach; you have raw meat sitting on the counter, knives used to cut said meat and mold spores that are ever-present. Just think of how nasty a sponge is – they smell sour and when you’re done washing the dishes you have to wash the ickiness off of your hands, right? That’s because sponges are full of bacteria and germs, the same reason that rotting food smells bad. Isn’t that the same sponge you use to wipe down your counters and clean the inside of your microwave? Yuck. Believe it or not, most kitchen magicians won’t take that into consideration when they’re prepping their meals.

Another thing about working in their kitchen is the use of tap water. The risk of bacterial infections when using tap water is staggering, as tap water isn’t exactly filtered. Sure, it goes through the normal basic filtering as required so we all don’t die of lead poisoning from drinking it, but, it still has a lot of bacteria and unwanted minerals in it. A lot of scratchers use tap water to clean their tools and workspace because it’s free and think that it’s already filtered enough since it’s safe to drink. So all of those germs that are present in the water will be all over their equipment.


The use of the kitchen isn’t the only reason that someone working out of their home is risky. In my previous article I mentioned how a tattoo artist should always be changing his gloves, and I said it for a reason: always assume that there is bacteria on everything. If the artist touches something, his or her gloves are contaminated. Scratchers aren’t known for their knowledge in cross-contamination, and rarely change their gloves with the exception of in-between clients because they believe it to be a waste of gloves. What does this mean? That means that his tools, bottles and counters have a very high possibility of holding nasty diseases, especially Hepatitis (Diseases like this can live inside of you for years without showing symptoms so it’s very easy to be infected without knowing unless you regularly are tested).

Other than the lack of glove-changing, a big deciding factor in the danger associated with at-home artists is the use of an autoclave. Scratchers rarely pull in a high-client volume so they can’t really afford a quality autoclave. What’s an autoclave? It’s the same machine that surgeons and dentists use to sterilize their tools, and I don’t mean that it just cleans them – autoclaves completely sterilize tools so that the bacteria levels are reduced to 0, literally. It removes every last trace of the person it was previously used on. Reputable autoclaves are, on average, $3,000. Sure, anyone can purchase some $200 autoclave off of eBay, but, that’s the same as buying some 1999 Mitsubishi with no working A/C over a 2013 Porsche. When the scratcher can’t afford a good autoclave, they resort to dipping tools in boiling water or using bleach to, “Sterilize,” their equipment. And no one ever said that bleach removed Hepatitis or HIV. That being said, you have a 1 in 1,000,000,000 chance of getting an infection in a reputable tattoo parlor that undergoes regular inspection by health departments; when you get tattooed in someone’s house, where they don’t have to worry about random inspections, statistics show that you have a 1 in 4,000 chance of getting an infection such as MRSA. Or worse.


People have pets, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but, do you want to be tattooed in the same room that Lassie is in? Animals are dirty, everyone knows that, and our furry friends have all sorts of dander and God knows what else floating around in the air. Not to mention they’ve been licking their butts and everything else so now you also have to worry about what they might be carrying. All it takes is a friendly kiss from Fido to get a worm.

Now that we've covered the health risks and the importance of formal training we'll cover a couple more subjects that, while they didn't fit in with the main topics, are just as important.

Tattoo parties

I've only ever seen one tattoo party in my lifetime, and, the only thing I can really compare it to is an orgy. It's gross, because 9 times out of 10 they aren't properly cleaning equipment and are just tattooing one person after the other with little regard to cleanliness. If you don't know what a tattoo party is, it's when a tattoo artist invites a whole bunch of people to their, "Workplace," and just kind of mass-produce tattoos for cheap. Because there are so many people waiting in line for a tattoo, the artist is usually in a hurry and performs a rush job. For the most part, the scratcher is only interested in making a lot of money and running.


The biggest risk with kitchen magicians is that they won't be held accountable for anything if something goes wrong. Why? Because there's nothing on record. Tattoo parlors always have legal documentation filled out before the tattoo is performed, they have liability insurance and they accept responsibility for their actions. At-home artists, not so much. They have no record of you ever receiving a tattoo from them and they have no liability insurance so all they have to do is say, "I've never even seen this person before," and they wash their hands of you. So if you get a flesh-eating disease, who are you going to go to? The artist? Obviously not - you're going to have to pay for your medical bills and the cover up, if you decide to get one, all on your own.

You Pay for What You Get

The Numero Uno reason people will go to an at-home artist is because of the cost, which is a major no-no. The last thing you should ever worry about is the cost of a tattoo, because tattoos are you-get-what-you-pay-for products that happen to be very, very permanent. It's the same concept as where to get your hair done: you can go to Great Clips and spend $20 on highlights that look more like painted-on stripes, or you can go to an independent salon and spend $90 to have supermodel hair. In the long run, you're going to want the better of the two products so don't worry about the cost. Why are tattoos in parlors so expensive when home-tattooers charge significantly less? Other than their level of skill, it's because they buy high-quality ink that lasts without fading or blurring; by being willing to spend a little more on your tattoo, you're ensuring that your tattoo will be done with nicer ink. By spending less, you're going to get a tattoo that will need more touch ups down the road which will inevitably cost you more money in the long run, as well as running the risk of the ink having less-than-reputable materials in it that may be harmful to your well-being.

In the end, tattoos are for life and they're just like any other medical procedure. Would you undergo a transplant in someone's basement, or would you let someone fill a cavity for you in their living room? You wouldn't, and you should treat tattoos the same way because if you don't, you could end up as another statistic that contracted some disease or just got a hideous tattoo.

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