Springs tattoo artist begins battle with big business

April 5, 2012
photo - Gary Wells is a tattoo artist and manager of Pikes Peak Tattoo at 920 N. Circle Dr. in Colorado Springs. Photo by MATT STEINER, THE GAZETTE
Gary Wells is a tattoo artist and manager of Pikes Peak Tattoo at 920 N. Circle Dr. in Colorado Springs. Photo by MATT STEINER, THE GAZETTE 

A Colorado Springs tattoo artist has already affected how one retail giant conducts business and hopes to make his mark on many more during the next several months.

Gary Wells, an artist and, as he calls himself, “head honcho in charge” of Pikes Peak Tattoo, 902 N. Circle Drive, spent March 29 tracking down customer service representatives at Sears.com. Wells found the website selling professional tattoo and piercing equipment, including guns, needles and inks.

Sears.com isn’t the only online outlet selling such tools to the public. Many offer similar products, including amazon.com and ebay.com.

“Sears is where I’m drawing the line,” Wells said. “It’s very irresponsible. A company like that should have a little bit more scruples.”

Wells argued with the website reps, eventually prompting a review of the sales and action by the company.

“When brought to our attention, we did remove those items immediately,” said Tom Aiello, a Sears spokesman, noting that Sears.com has “third party” retailers that sell products, including tattoo and piercing equipment, in a marketplace on the site.

While some tattoo kits still appear on the website, a message stating that the item is no longer available pops up when a customer tries to “add to cart.”

According to Wells, such sales are dangerous to public health as “anyone with a credit card can get them.” He said nonprofessionals who perform tattoos and piercing in basements and garages with improperly sterilized tools can cause infections and more serious issues such as disease and permanent scarring.

Professional tattoo artists in El Paso County are required to “demonstrate knowledge of universal precautions, disinfection and sterilization techniques,” according to the State Board of Health Rules and Regulations for Body Artists. They also must be vaccinated for hepatitis B or provide a written statement if they deny the vaccination.

Artists must attend CPR and first aid classes and take an infectious disease control class through the health department.

The rules also state that tattoo shops need to be “completely separated” from living areas, places where food is prepared or other places that “may cause potential contamination.”

Susan Wheelan, a spokeswoman for El Paso County Public Health, said tattoo shops in the Pikes Peak region have been “very attentive” to making sure public health guidelines are met.

“We have a focus on education,” Wheelan said. “We believe that if we provide the education, then they are more apt to follow through when we are not there.”

Jim Goodwin, also with the health department, said the county inspects each tattoo and piercing shop at least once a year. When asked if online sales of tattoo tools is a concern to the health department, Goodwin said, “We don’t regulate sale of equipment .... What we regulate is prevention of disease.”

Wells said he also worries that equipment in untrained hands could lead to the downfall of the tattoo and piercing industry. He points to a 36-year period when tattoo parlors were outlawed New York City, the result of poor practices.

The New York Times reported in a July 2001 article that “a hepatitis outbreak in 1961 led to a ban that was not lifted until 1997.”

Scares like that have helped fuel Wells’ passion, so much so that he plans to take time off from working as a tattoo artist, refer his clients to colleagues and begin a crusade to gather more support in his fight against online sales of tattoo and piercing tools. He plans to visit artists and tattoo shops in the Colorado Springs area and rally the tattoo community for his cause .

“When something comes down the road that effects all shops equally, we’re going to have to join together,” he said.

Contact Matt Steiner at matt.steiner@gazette.com or follow him on Twitter @gazsteiner.

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