Yellowknife tattoo parlour owner says 'basement scratchers' can be risky business

An unlicensed tattoo artist may be offering services in private homes with equipment that could be unsanitary, according to the Chief Public Health Officer.

Health officials are warning people about an unlicensed tattoo artist in Yellowknife

Sara Murphy said Harley's Hard Rock Saloon and Shirt Shack operates on the motto that 'cheap tattoos aren’t good and good tattoos aren’t cheap.' On Monday, the N.W.T. chief public health officer warned people that an unlicensed tattoo artist may be operating in Yellowknife. (Yellowknife Tattoo Facebook)

The owner of the only licensed tattoo parlour in Yellowknife says it's alarming that an artist might be operating outside of regulations. 

"It makes me afraid for Yellowknifers, and I really hope they don't make the silly decision of going to tattoo artists that are not qualified," said Sara Murphy, the owner of the Yellowknife Tattoo parlor, Harley's Hard Rock Saloon and Shirt Shack. 

On Monday, health officials warned the public about a tattoo artist who may be working in Yellowknife without a licence.

The artist is offering services in people's homes with potentially unsanitary tools, according to the office of Chief Public Health Officer.

"We call them basement scratchers — that's how HIV happens, that's how hepatitis happens," Murphy said. 

"A tattoo is an actual medical procedure. You're changing somebody's body permanently."

She said her shop employs five tattoo artists who went through apprenticeships and training. 

Officials urge recipients to get tested 

"It's not somebody that's been licensed by us and we don't know if he's using proper techniques and equipment to make it safe," said Dr. Andre Corriveau, the Northwest Territories' chief public health officer.

The advisory is precautionary at this point, he said, but the health office is trying to contact the artist. 

"If you've had a tattoo recently — someone came to your house — it would probably best to get a risk assessment done," Corriveau said.
Health officials encourage people to get tattoos from a licensed artist so they can avoid the risk of contracting an infectious diseases. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"Tattoo services require sterile equipment and a sanitary environment to prevent transmission of skin infections and blood-borne systemic infections, such as HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C," the health office said in its advisory. 

People who have recently received tattoos from an unlicensed artist are encouraged to contact Yellowknife Public Health at 867-920-6570 to get tested for diseases. 

Owner says N.W.T. guidelines aren't strict

"The tattoo industry in the Northwest Territories is not regulated as much as it should be, so for our company we go through the Health Canada codes," Murphy said. 

"In the Northwest Territories codes, there's only about a page and a half maybe of codes which include things like you  have to have a wash station, you have to have proper ventilation."

She said the Health Canada guidelines are more specific. For example, they include the ways in which an artist has to wash a tattoo machine and what chemicals to use.

Furthermore, Murphy said the shop now operates using all disposable tools. 

"We don't want to be the reason anybody contracts anything." 

As there is only one shop, Corriveau said "it wasn't on the top of our priority list of, you know, policies and legislation to adjust." 

However, he said he is confident in the health department's inspections.