Think before you ink … or pierce

Beckie Huston was giggling. In fact, she appeared a trifle nervous as she sat in an orange school chair waiting to be punctured.

Beckie Huston was giggling.

In fact, she appeared a trifle nervous as she sat in an orange school chair waiting to be punctured.

Professional piercer Greta Pauls painted antiseptic on the side of Huston’s nose and inserted a small stainless steel tray into her left nostril.

Pauls used a pen to mark the spot where she’d insert the needle. She adjusted and readjusted her hand and then quickly pushed the pin through Huston’s skin.

Huston grimaced. Then, a second later, the pain was over and she rose from the chair smiling, her new piercing firmly in place.

While book-bag-toting students milled around Yukon College’s halls Thursday afternoon, 40 spectators gathered spellbound to watch friends get tattooed and pierced during a safe practices demonstration in the pit.

It was part of the two-day Hepatitis C Conference sponsored by Blood Ties Four Directions.

Last week’s event brought safe tattoo and piercing advocates Pauls and Steve Cole from their Vancouver-based shop Sacred Heart Tattoo.

Most of the events — the speeches by sufferers, hepatologists and specialists — were held in at the Westmark Hotel, but a crew showed up at the college to help educate some younger Yukoners about safe practices.

Tattooing and piercing can be risky for the uninformed.

“Anytime you break the skin, that puts you at risk for pathogens,” Pauls told the crowd during the demonstration. And the best way to stay safe is to be armed with information.

Next up was Trinity Sweney. Tattooed Trinity is her stage name.

Sweney, a Sourdough Rendezvous cancan dancer, came to get a can-can dancer tattooed on the back of her shoulder.

The tattoo would make it an even 10 for Sweney.

“On my first trip here, I’m elated to tattoo a cancan dancer onto a can-can dancer,” said Cole with a smile.

He looked like a surgeon of sorts preparing to operate. His table was covered in antiseptics and sterile, individually wrapped tools.

Small pots of coloured inks were spread out before him like a painter’s palette.

The motor revved on the tattoo machine and he began drawing, he aptly traced the outline of a flirty dancer in mid kick, then coloured in the rainbow of layers on the underside of her dress in tones of rich red, orange and yellow.

“Tattooing is a form of skin abrasion, like skinning a knee or an elbow,” said Cole, who has been tattooing for eight years. And, like when you cut your skin, a tattoo needs time to heal.

“Basic tattoo procedure is not — come in, get tattooed and get the hell out,” he said. He consults before any skin is broken to make sure the client is in the proper state of mind and health to get drawn upon.

He’ll never tattoo somebody who has had too much to drink.

And he likes his clients to have eaten a good meal beforehand. His favourite is a big Subway sub washed down with a glass of orange juice.

Because tattooing and piercing are unregulated, a lot of sketchy artists are allowed to work under the radar, said Cole.

“You can order a tattooing kit out of the back of a magazine and get it delivered to your door.”

Cole educates people on safe tattoo practice to break through myths that it is always dangerous and to bring the art form out of the dimly lit backrooms.

If you’re unsure, just ask, said Cole.

The days of tattooists being secretive about the tools and tricks of their trade are long over.

“If the tattooer is offended by the questions, that’s a good sign they’re not following the proper procedure.”

Beware of travelling tattoo artists who set up shops in kitchens and living rooms, he said. He’s seen the bad effects of botched jobs.

“There was a gentleman in Tofino who spent three weeks in town and tattooed about 60 people — all brutal, horrible jobs,” said Cole.

“People were so upset they were driven to cry about them and he left so fast no one had time to see what the drawings really looked like when they were healed.”

And, if the tattooist makes you uncomfortable, go with your gut and get out, he added.

He likes to tell the story of a friend who got a tattoo in Daytona Beach and, somehow, the tattooist convinced her she needed to take her shirt off during the procedure to help with her breathing, Cole said, shaking his head.

Pauls has co-owned Sacred Heart Tattoo for nine years and has been piercing professionally for 13.

She is currently finishing her microbiology and immunology degree at the University of British Columbia.

Pauls uses the same needles for piercing that are used in surgical IVs. They can be made of metals like surgical steel, titanium, platinum or niobium.

They’re implant-grade, explained Pauls, meaning they’re the same pins and needles surgeons put in the body to repair joints and fuse broken bones.

Every piece of equipment that touches the skin should be disposed or sterilized.

The tattoo machine, and anything else that cannot be sterilized or disposed of, is kept in a plastic bag while being used. This prevents it becoming contaminated.

A lot of it is pure common sense, said Cole.

The tattooing area should be used only for tattooing.

“Make sure they’re not eating lunch there,” he quipped.

Look for the autoclave — the sterilizing machine — on the premises and be sure it’s regularly spore tested.

Double-checking the cleanliness of the environment and tools is a small thing that can change your life in the long run.

Cross-contamination of equipment that has been improperly cleaned between clients can put people at risk, said Pauls.

Because tattooing and piercing breaks the skin and viruses, like hepatitis C, are passed from blood-to-blood transmission, it’s essential to know what’s going on behind the scenes.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne, infectious virus that attacks the liver.

Five hundred Yukoners are among the 250,000 Canadians who have tested positive for the virus.

Five thousand more, mostly young people, are diagnosed each year, according to numbers from Blood Ties and Health Canada.

The numbers are higher in First Nations populations, according to a Health Canada study.