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Tracking the Trail of Tainted Tattoos

Local Matters


Published October 18, 2005 at 11:59 p.m.

MIDDLEBURY -- State officials filed charges Friday against Curtis Allen for tattooing without a license. The charges concluded an investigation that began in the summer, when doctors at Middlebury's Porter Medical Center raised concerns about a cluster of bacterial infections there.

MRSA, or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is an organism often found on the skin of healthy humans. If the organism gets beneath the skin or into the blood or lungs, it can cause nasty skin infections or pneumonia. Doctors at Porter treated five newly tattooed people for boils, lesions and sores on their skin.

"The doctors notified the Health Department," says Derek Everett, who conducted the investigation for the Secretary of State's Professional Licensing Board. "The common thread in each instance was that the victims reported a tattoo artist operating out of his living room."

Everett started by interviewing the victims who were still suffering from rashes, and oozing cuts and sores. "The virus literally eats holes in human flesh," he says. "One girl had a hole 5 inches wide and 4 inches deep in her leg."

The state is alleging that the infections were spread because Allen, who has been living in various places around the Middlebury area, did not properly sterilize his tattooing equipment -- in this case, a Rogers & Spaulding Super Value Tattoo Outfit #5.

"Any injectable needle can transmit MRSA," says Dr. Andrew Bushnell of Fletcher Allen Health Care. "But that's not the biggest concern. When you don't autoclave, or heat-sterilize, these needles, your equipment becomes a tool that can also transmit HIV or hepatitis A or B." Detecting these more serious diseases can take up to six months, according to Bushnell.

Interviews with victims led Everett on a search for a tattoo artist known simply as "Tattoo." He wasn't hard to find. Allen is a 300-pound African-American man with dreadlocks and a Jamaican accent who usually wears a long, leather trench coat. "Not many people in Middlebury fit his description," Everett says.

When he caught up with his suspect, Everett says, Allen admitted to giving the people tattoos without a license. Allen had dumped his tattooing kit when he heard about the investigation, so Everett was unable to test the equipment for MRSA. But Allen confirmed that he had done all the tattoos within a two-day period. He had used a disinfectant meant for machine tools, not human skin.

While anyone can order tattooing equipment online, getting properly certified is more involved. "You have to do an apprenticeship for 1000 hours under a licensed artist -- usually unpaid," says Julie Giles, manager of Body Art Body Piercing and Tattooing Studio in Burlington. "And you have to take a course on blood-borne pathogens." Giles noted that Body Art is a licensed studio and that all its artists are certified.

Body Art feels more like a dentist's office than somebody's living room, starting with the drill-like whir of the tattooing instruments. Equipment soaks in chemical washes in metal basins. The chairs and benches are wrapped in plastic. Rooms are sprayed with an envirocide before each use.

"Our customers see the equipment come out of sealed containers and get disposed of in 'sharps' containers," says tattoo artist Jason Tooth. "It gives them confidence." Tooth, who is touching up a tattoo that covers his customer's entire lower leg, wears an army-green T-shirt. Tattoos cover both his arms and inserts hang in his earlobes.

"The chances of an individual working out of his kitchen having this sort of equipment are slim," says Giles, pointing out "an expensive autoclave unit." Anything less, she says, is "pretty scary."