A tattoo artist creating a tattoo

Local tattoo artists and parlour owners are celebrating the recent $48,000 fine given to a Calgary couple on Jan. 22 under the Public Health Act for unsanitary conditions at a home-based tattoo parlour in Huntington Hills.

Celeste Moran and Bruno Labreque are the homeowners of the unapproved parlour that their son Rye Robert Moran set up in their basement, and were fined $24,000 each for nine infractions. These included performing tattoos in a bedroom not adequately separated from other home activities, lack of an approved sanitizer on site and using reusable stainless steel grips without proper evidence of sterilization. Rye Robert Moran faces similar charges and will be sentenced on April 28 by a different judge.

This is one of more than 25 tattooing facilities and three piercing studios that have been closed by Alberta Health Services (AHS) in the Calgary area since 2009 for a variety of health code violations, with 12 closures still active and monitored until all conditions of the closure have been met.

“I think it’s fantastic. If it was $1,000 or $2,000 that doesn’t really deter anyone, but when you’re talking a scary amount of money, that’s enough that it’ll make people think twice about what they’re doing,” says Keith Kennedy, owner of Calgary piercing studio Tribal Expression, and Tiki Town Tattoo and Spa.

Woman getting a tattooKeith Kennedy stands proudly behind his open door policy in regards to sterilization and training records at his piercing studio, Tribal Expression.

Photo by Ashley Materi Kennedy and tattoo artist Trevor Varem agree that people who are operating these unapproved shops are looking to make a quick buck and aren’t taking the long-term impacts on the health of their clients into consideration. “It just takes a credit card pretty much and you can open up a tattoo shop,” says Varem, who works at Enso Tattoo in downtown Calgary. “There’s lots of people that take advantage of that and do some really bad tattoos.”

Not only is the quality of the tattoo often questionable, but the safety and health of the customer is frequently overlooked, mentions Varem.

All of the closed shops were charged with violations that may become injurious or dangerous to public health. According to AHS’s website, these violations range from owners using improper or nonexistent sterilization techniques, providing services in parts of the home that children and animals have access to, neglecting to keep or maintain client records, and inappropriate disposal of needles.

AHS has strict health and safety standards in place, and only license establishments that follow these requirements. Dr. Judy MacDonald, deputy medical officer of health for AHS in Calgary, said, “The home-based parlours closed by AHS did not have proper sterilization processes in place,” in a 2013 media release by AHS. “Meaning individuals who received tattoos or piercings through these operations may have been exposed to viruses such as hepatitis B and C, and HIV.” To prevent the spread of infection from person to person, proper sterilization or discarding used materials is necessary for any equipment used in tattoos, piercings and other procedures where skin is broken.

Things to look for before proceeding with a tattoo or piercing:

  • Confirm that the business is inspected and approved by calling AHS Calgary Environmental Public Health (403) 943-2288 – Calgary Zone. 
  • Tour the facilities. The shop should be clean and well-organized, without needles, inks and tubes scattered around.
  • The license should be clearly displayed, and upon request, the business should have the ability to provide a copy of their most recent health inspection report.
  • Ask about sanitation practices, such as reusing ink, tube covers or needles and ensure they have an autoclave for proper sterilization of piercing equipment. Ensure that plastic gloves and coverings are used during the procedure and that they are changed from person to person.
  • The parlour will ask for contact information for their records and should require a consent form to be filled out before beginning the tattoo or piercing.

In a statement on Tribal Expression’s website regarding the closure of one unapproved facility, Kennedy said, “We feel saddened when imposters pose as professionals to reap the profits of unsuspecting clientele and jeopardize innocent clients for the sake of making a dollar.”

Kennedy added that it’s known in the tattoo and piercing industry that many operations run out of homes offer cheap procedures and these discounts draw customers who are looking to save money. However, Kennedy said the potential risks in the long-run outweigh any discount.

According to a 2010 report released by the Calgary Environmental Public Health division of AHS in response to the closure of multiple illegal facilities run out of homes, illegal operators rarely have formal training and don’t follow provincial regulations for running their shops. Tattoos or piercings in these conditions can easily become infected if strict cleaning policies are not in place, which can cause the body to reject the piercing or ink, as well as the need for antibiotics and even hospitalization. A reputable tattoo or piercing business will be able to assess infections and allergies, as well as give advice for the best course of action.

The experience that a piercer or tattoo artist has is reflected in the prices of their work. Apprenticeships, training seminars and technique courses are expensive for artists to do and can cost thousands of dollars, Kennedy said. In the end, the customer is the one that benefits from the time and money the artist has put into learning and perfecting their craft.

“Over the last 18 years, we estimate that it’s at least $110,000 that it has cost the company to do all the different training,” Kennedy said. “You have to look at what type of experiences a person has. It is a total ‘buyers beware’ market.”


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