Customers seek ways to avoid HIV

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tatoo salonTattoos, once the sole domain of inmates, soldiers and sailors, have become a popular and accepted body art form.

Celebrities who openly sport them are credited with spreading the trend, and more women than ever are getting tattoos.

But the fad has some experts and health professionals concerned that people must seek out only licensed tattoo artists and facilities to avoid infections and injuries that can be spread by unskilled operators who use dirty needles and work in unsanitary conditions.

"The problems arise from roadside tattoo artists that operate in bars or out of their homes or customers' homes," said William Wolff, public facilities program manager for the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District.

Health inspectors keep a close watch on 50 facilities and 242 people who are licensed to apply tattoos. Some of the facilities also do body makeup and body piercing.

"So far, we haven't had the need to close any of them. Our inspectors conduct unannounced inspections, and they issued no citations in the past year," Wolff said. "We have a strong local ordinance to enforce the health standards, and one of our missions is the prevention of blood-borne pathogens."

The health district requires tattoo artists to attend a mandatory class by the district that lasts about a half day before they can receive a license.

In addition to scarring, the health risks associated with tattoos include hepatitis A, B and C and HIV. Staph infection is a more recent related hazard, district officials said.

El Pasoan Lucy Quiñones is about three-fourths finished with a large tattoo of a panther that will stretch 2å feet from her upper torso to her left thigh.

"For me, the panther has a special meaning," Quiñones said. "It symbolizes stealth, silence and strength. The panther is beautiful, but it also can be dangerous."

Quiñones, 42, a transporter, is getting her tattoo done in parts at the Bangkok School of Tattoo & Body Piercing in Northeast El Paso.

"I checked out the shop before deciding to let them do my tattoo," she said. "You can tell right away if a shop is clean and see that they used sterile equipment. I am confident they are running a professional place. Tattooing is one of the main ways that HIV can be transmitted, and that is why you need to be careful about who does the work and where it is done. Two things can go wrong if you are not careful: You can get a tattoo that is poorly done, like a bad drawing, and you can get an infection."

Quiñones said the public's views toward tattoos have changed over the years.

"People today are more open-minded about it and other things" she said. "For example, men can wear an earring in both ears and no one thinks anything of it. You could not do that several years ago."

Richard Rodriguez, a veteran tattoo artist, runs Bangkok School of Tattoo & Body Piercing, the only formal school for tattoo artists in El Paso. It also offers classes in body piercing. The health district maintains a close relationship with his school and with an association that represents tattoo artists in El Paso.

"I started the school because I saw the need for people to learn how to do it properly," Rodriguez said. "I've been doing this for 15 years, and in that time I've seen and heard lots of tattoo and body-piercing horror stories. I've seen a lot of unsafe work."

Rodriguez first developed the school concept three years ago, and he established it at his studio two years ago. He has about 200 students enrolled who can do the tattoo work at the studio under an apprentice program.

He explained the appeal of the skin art and the reason for the current trend.

"People use tattoos to express their individuality," he said. "These days it seems as though everybody is trying to be different. I think the fact that celebrities and rock stars who were getting tattoos helped to make it more acceptable in people's minds.

"Health standards are important to us, and needles need to be sterilized. In my studio, as a policy, we only use needles one time."

In Texas, tattoos cannot be applied to minors, pregnant women and diabetics.

Cable television reality shows such as "Miami Ink" provide insights into the art of tattooing and have helped to make it part of the mainstream culture.

A couple of Web sites on tattoos deal with a concern that women who may become pregnant should not get a tattoo on their lower back because it might prevent a doctor from administering an epidural in the future. One such site characterized the concern as an "urban legend."

Mayo Clinic's Web site (mayoclinic.com) says, "Most pregnant women who have lower back tattoos can receive epidurals. The exception would be if the tattoo covers a large area and is still "fresh," meaning the involved skin is still healing."

The health district's Wolff said El Paso residents are fortunate, "because in other states, there is little to no regulation of this area (health risks with tattoos). Still, tattoos are always done at the risk of the consumer."

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