Barking and Dagenham Council dealt with around 10 investigations of unlicensed skin piercers in 2011. The illicit businesses usually operate from private homes, pubs, clubs or by visiting clients’ homes. Licensed tattooists and body piercers usually operate from commercial premises.
There are major health risks if the piercer has not properly sterilised their equipment. This can range from minor skin irritations to serious blood-borne viruses like hepatitis and HIV.
Unlicensed practitioners are often more lax when it comes to checking the age of customers - under 18s cannot have tattoos in the UK. They are also less likely to ask about the medical history of their customers, something which could have a bearing on whether the procedure is carried out.
For these reasons, anyone who thinks they might have had a tattoo or body piercing done by an unlicensed person is strongly advised to visit their GP for a health check.
Unlicensed tattooists or body piercers face sentences of up to two years and unlimited fines. Equipment can also be seized and destroyed by the local authority. Health and safety practitioners working for the council can check whether licensed operators have the correct training and qualifications. They check equipment and hygiene standards to make sure everything is safe.
There are a number of things customers can check to keep themselves safe:
• Always choose an establishment that is licensed with the local authority and is spotlessly clean.
• Check that all equipment is sterilised and don’t be afraid to ask how they sterilise.
• Equipment should be sterilised in a special machine called an autoclave. Sterilisers used for baby bottles are not adequate.
• Make sure tattoos are done with new needles. If you don’t see the needle removed from a sealed package, walk away.
• The tattoo artist or body piercer should always wash their hands and put on a fresh pair of medical-type gloves before each new procedure.
• Check whether the person you’re dealing with has undergone recognised training and qualifications.
Cllr Jeanne Alexander, Cabinet Member for Crime, Justice and Communities, said: “It might be tempting to have a tattoo or piercing done on the cheap, maybe by a friend of a friend. But it’s vital that people realise how dangerous it can be to use an unlicensed piercer.
“Licensed businesses are subject to checks by the authorities and can be closed down if hygiene standards aren’t maintained. Unlicensed operators face none of these checks and you have no idea how competent the person is. No tattoo or piercing is worth risking your health for, especially when there are plenty of licensed businesses to choose from.”