Students experiment with self-expression through the potentially unsafe practice of self piercings and homemade tattoos
It was 2 a.m. when junior Daniel Kington hopped onto the bathroom sink at summer camp and held a wrapped popsicle against his ear. After five minutes, his earlobe was numb and ready to be pierced. In an instant, an earring, sanitized with a wet-wipe, found its way through his left earlobe.
Junior Annie Deibel was just as daring when she tattooed her left hand. After dipping a needle in black India
Ink, she poked the sterilized needle through the first layer of her skin little-by-little until she had an image of three small, concentric circles imprinted on her hand.
Do-it-yourself tattoos and piercings have become more popular among students, as they allow for self-expression and spontaneity at relatively low costs, and, in some cases, only semi-permanent results. However, the trend raises questions about whether homemade methods are sanitary and safe.
At popular body art stores, such as Piercology and Claire’s, trained professionals use either a piercing gun or a sterilized needle for piercings.
According to tattoo artist Brett Prince, the owner of Short North Tattoo parlor, a wide variety of sanitation procedures are used to prevent infection. All employees must have a health certification, license and proper sterilized equipment before they are able to begin tattooing a client. Prince requires all these components, along with several others, before an employee can be hired.
“For a tattoo artist position, I personally require five years of shop experience and a strong portfolio along with proper health certification,” Prince said.
To get a piercing done at Piercology, the procedure alone will cost anywhere from $10-to-$40, not including the necessary jewelry which generally starts at $23. Sophomore Morgan Wilcox said that these prices deterred her from using a professional when she pierced her ears.
“I didn’t want to spend the money for something I could do myself,” Wilcox said.
In addition to the price being too high for some students, Kington said his decision to pierce his ear was impromptu, leaving little time to think about going to a professional.
“I didn’t [go to] a professional because it was really a spur of the moment thing,” Kington said. “Also I didn’t want to pay for something I wasn’t really sure about, and if it was unsanitary and got infected I could just take it out.”
The issue of cost also arises with tattoos. At the Short North Tattoo parlor, Prince said tattoos cost $150 an hour; the larger and more intricate the tattoo, the longer it will take to complete and the more money it will cost. Unlike piercings, professional tattoos are permanent. So if a customer doesn’t like the design, it cannot be easily removed. Dermatologist Neal D. Mastruserio said that tattoo removal isn’t a simple process.
“There are new picosecond lasers which are supposed to be the latest in tattoo removal,” Mastruserio said. “I was disappointed with the first generation of tattoo removal lasers. They frequently only ‘muddied’ the tattoo, making [its] lines and edges appear smudged.”
Mastruserio said the cost of tattoo removal isn’t optimal either.
“Tattoo removal is painful,” Mastruserio said. “[it] requires multiple treatments which makes it expensive— [usually] thousands of dollars—and the outcome is frequently just OK.”
The benefit of DIY tattoos is that most are only semi-permanent, other than potential scarring, so there is no need for tattoo removal. This allows students to experiment with different designs without fear of a lasting result.
Sophomore Anna Stock said her Sharpie tattoo probably wouldn’t last longer than two months.
“If you wanted it to last longer, you’d have to puncture yourself deeper and do the process longer,” Stock said. “It also depends on where your tattoo is on your body, because if it has a lot of contact [with clothes or soap and water], that can cause it to wash away or fade [more quickly].”
How to Do It Yourself
There are a variety of steps one can follow to create a DIY tattoo. One procedure is to pierce the top layer of skin repeatedly with a sterilized needle dipped in black India Ink. This is the technique Deibel used to create the three, small concentric circles tattooed on her hand.
However, Stock used a slightly different way to complete her tattoo.
“You take a thin Sharpie and draw the design of the tattoo you want. After that you take a clean needle or push pin and you start puncturing yourself while you follow the Sharpie line,” she said. “After you puncture yourself several times, go over the punctured parts with your Sharpie again. From then on, you repeat the steps over and over.”
These techniques leave scabs that fall off after a week or two, but depending on how deep the skin is punctured there can be long-term scarring. Otherwise Stock said the tattoos usually fade after a couple months.
Piercings have less strict guidelines than tattoos when it comes to procedure. Kington used an earring to pierce his ear, while junior Delaney Meyers used a thumbtack. Different still, Wilcox used a safety pin for her lip, and a disposable piercing gun for her ears.
In order to sterilize the piercing objects, a variety of techniques were used. Meyers put the thumbtack in a container filled with antiseptic ear cleaner before burning the tack with a lighter, and Wilcox soaked her safety pin in ear cleaner she purchased at Claire’s.
Health professionals such as Mastruserio and school nurse Liz Mueller voiced concerns over whether these unconventional methods are safe. Mueller said a variety of risks should be considered with both DIY tattoos and piercings. However, she said a tattoo poses a more imminent threat to one’s health.
“It involves multiple injections and multiple sites, so every time you add another site it’s another possible entry for the bacteria,” Mueller said.
As a professionally licensed tattoo artist, Brett Prince strongly cautioned against DIY tattoos for similar reasons.
“You face problems such as hepatitis, staph infection, and MRSA virus [a dangerous strain of staph bacteria] exposure,” Prince said. “You are risking your health and physical appearance if you allow yourself to be tattooed by an amateur.”
Mastruserio agreed that DIY piercings can pose serious threats to one’s health, and they can have long-term effects.
“You can get some severe infections in places where cartilage is pierced,” Mastruserio said. “The worst of these can lead to necrosis [death] of the cartilage… leading to loss of that cartilage. Severe infections can lead to hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics and surgery… Imagine losing part of your ear or nose.”
In relation to both piercings and tattoos, Mueller said the dangers of using unsterilized needles are profound and troubling.
“There’s certain things [that] if it got into your bloodstream it wouldn’t be just an infection at the site; it could be widespread,” Mueller said.
Mastruserio said much thought should be put into a tattoo before getting one; he advised against any sort of DIY body art.
“I counsel teens to wait until they are at least 18 before getting a tattoo; then once they have settled on a design, wait one year before getting it,” he said. “If you’ve waited a year, then you have had long enough to think about it.”
Students have several motives that inspire them to create homemade tattoos.
For Stock, homemade tattoos are only a temporary measure that prepare her for the real thing sometime in the future.
“I’ve been thinking about what I would want to get done for a long time now actually, and the more I think about it, the more I love the idea,” Stock said. “I’ve got two years until I’m 18 and I can get my first permanent tattoo, and I have several in mind and they’re very personal and they represent important things in my life.”
Meyers agreed that tattoos are a unique way to portray one’s personal style.
“I just really like the way it looks and wanted the opportunity to further adorn myself with expression,” she said.
To Deibel, these tattoos are also a means of individuality.
“They’re a great way to express your individuality, and I think that’s an extremely important thing to do, especially in a society … where there are molds that you feel pressured to fit into,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that it’s OK to be different and to want to be your own person.”
While many adults such as Mastruserio, Mueller and Prince are concerned about the potential problems DIY piercings and tattoos can cause, few students who have them seem to regret their decision.
Stock, Mueller and Mastruserio said much thought should be put into a professional tattoo before actually getting one. However, Stock uses DIY tattoos that fade over time as a means of testing out how a design looks before going for a professional one.
“No, I do not regret my choice,” Stock said. “And a word of advice: If anyone is thinking about getting tattoos when they’re 18 or out of high school, now would be a good time to start thinking about what you want so you have years to decide… I know I’ve changed my mind of what [permanent] tattoos I wanted, and I wouldn’t want to live with that regret.”
Sophomore Anna Stock advocates DIY tattoos as preparation for permanent tattoos in the future. To Stock, these serve as an impermanent way of seeing what one may or may not want to get tattooed professionally.