A tattoo parlor doesn’t seem like a particularly salubrious place, and having someone stick a needle through your skin seems obviously to carry some risk, but the risk of getting any blood-borne disease by getting a tattoo are extremely low, at least in the United States.
Although it is of course theoretically possible to transmit such diseases as hepatitis or HIV with tattoo needles, the CDC has never heard of such a case.
Body piercing, which often involves tissue that takes a long time to heal, also involves a theoretical risk if unhealed sores come into contact with infected blood, although there are no documented cases of this kind of transmission, either.
There is one documented case of HIV transmission from acupuncture, but there are no data at all to indicate that people who get tattoos or body piercings are at increased risk for hepatitis C or HIV. There have been a few cases of apparent transmission of hepatitis B in tattoo parlors, but no study shows getting tattoos to be a risk factor for the disease.
Of course, in most jurisdictions tattoo parlors and body piercing establishments are pretty much unregulated, so you’re taking your chances when you enter one of them. The people who do tattoos don’t necessarily have any training in infection control, and the dyes they use are not approved by the FDA.
If you’re determined to get a tattoo, New York City may be one good place to get one. The New York City health department licenses tattoo artists (not tattoo parlors), who have to take a course in infection control and pass an exam.
The law took effect in 1997, and 500 licenses have been issued since then. The license is good for two years and then has to be renewed. The city does examine tattoo parlors, but only if there’s a complaint. The Department of Health reminds everyone that it makes judgments only on health matters, complaints about the quality of the artwork are not within their area of expertise, and the licensing exam does not test competence in artistic expression.
Thanks to childhood vaccination, tetanus is a rare disease in the United States, there are about 40 cases a year. Between 1995 and 1997, the CDC attributed one of 123 cases to a self-performed tattoo and one other to a self-performed navel piercing. There were no cases of tetanus attributed to tattoos or body piercings done in professional establishments.
There are some real dangers out there, and taking certain precautions certainly makes sense. But at least in our view, you’re being irrational if you let fear of contagion interfere with the normal pursuit of everyday social interactions, or if your idea of taking precautions is to stay inside your house all day wearing a surgical mask.
We are nevertheless aware that not everyone will share our opinion.