Safety and After-care for Prison Tattoos

By Tracey Hamilton

From PHN Issue 32, Spring 2017

The primary fear most people express about getting tattooed in prison is that they may contract the HIV virus, which may cause AIDS. HIV is only one of many viruses that can be transmitted. Syphilis, tuberculosis, strep, staph, and hepatitis are just a few of the other diseases to take into consideration.

Since a tattoo gun with a motor cannot be sterilized properly, germs and bacteria can get inside it. My best tip would be to wrap it inside a latex glove and do short tattoo sessions to keep it cool. There is no perfect way to sterilize the needle, but I’ll suggest a few things that’ll help. A) Boil in water. B) Rinse with water and bleach, and clean with soap. C) Burn with fire at a high temperature.

Here is a checklist that should be followed to make it a little more safe and sterile for everybody involved.

  • The artist will put on disposable latex gloves and lay out everything needed on a sterile surface. Ink, paper towels, etc.
  • The area where the tattoo will be placed is shaved, using a disposable razor that has not been used before.
  • Using paper towels, the area is cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
  • Another paper towel is run across a stick of clear deodorant and then applied to the prepped skin, to apply the stencil.
  • The tattoo stencil is placed on the skin.
  • Everything must be disposable and used only once. Wiping down tattoo with new paper towel every time.
  • When finished, the artist will clean it gently with an alcohol/water solution and wrap it in sterile gauze.

Prison tattoo ink is a misnomer, because black is the only actual ink used in tattooing. The rest of the colors are made from mixing dry pigments (made from vegetable matter) with a suspension fluid such as water or one of several kinds of alcohol. These risks are slight to none, except to people who have extreme sensitivities already. In prison, ink could be made from anything, even burning up an old comb or toothbrush into ash and mixing with shampoo, toothpaste, or mouthwash.

There are a lot of ways to make ink. You can’t trust any. The best thing to do is ask some old school to help you make your own. You may be able to order acrylic inks, and other kinds too. Not all are safe, and some can cause allergic reactions. If you’re concerned about ink allergies, ask your tattooist to do a “patch test” on a discreet part of your body, punching a tiny bit of ink under your skin to see how your body reacts.

If you experience any out-of-the-ordinary symptoms (shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, fever, swelling, rash, or dizziness) after being tattooed, seek medical attention immediately.

When you make your ink, you have to put it in a bottle. Most use an eye drop bottle, which I believe is as safe as we can get, since it’s sterile already, just empty and fill. When you’re ready to start, you need an ink cup to put a few drops of ink into while you work. My favorite technique is to dig a pit in a new bar of soap and use that as an ink holder. Never reuse old ink or try to put any back into the bottle. Used ink can transmit hepatitis C, even weeks after it was used last.

Some ink won’t be as dark once it heals. A second session will be needed.

After-care procedure

  1. Gently clean area twice daily with antibacterial soap, using your fingertips.
  2. Apply thin layer of A&E ointment or bacitracin, or even a water-based, additive-free lotion.
  3. Continue regimen for two weeks. If you notice any swelling, redness or burning that doesn’t go away after a few days, consult a doctor.

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