Nova Scotia

Tattoo industry still unregulated, 6 years after legislation introduced

Unlike in other provinces, tattoo artists and piercers in Nova Scotia aren't required to have any safety training. There are no provincially set restrictions on the age of their customers. They don't even need a permit from the province to operate.

Safe Body Art Act introduced in Nova Scotia in 2011, but it's not enforceable because it was never proclaimed

The province introduced the Safe Body Art Act six years ago, but the bill was never proclaimed, so the act is not enforceable. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Soon after Lisa O'Quinn got a tattoo in Halifax a few years ago, she knew something was wrong. 

At first it was itchy — a normal part of the healing process, she knew. But then little bumps started cropping up.

"Then one of them was almost like a boil and it turned into this open cut thing — it was really gross."

Then the swelling started. The pain was intense, she said.

"When I went to the doctor … he was like, 'If you had just let this go, we probably would have had to amputate."

O'Quinn said she has gotten other tattoos without a problem, so she believes the infection was passed on through the artist's tools or a faulty procedure.

She took antibiotics and recovered, but said Nova Scotia needs rules to ensure tattoo artists are operating safely.

"I definitely think that we need something," she said. "At least to make sure that the shop that they're working out of is clean."

No rules for industry

In 2011, Nova Scotia introduced the Safe Body Art Act, which would require tattoo artists to have a permit and meet standards for cleanliness and infection control.

But six years after it was introduced, the act is still unenforceable, since it's never been proclaimed and there are no regulations to accompany it.

Unlike in other provinces, tattoo artists and piercers in Nova Scotia aren't required to have any safety training. There are no provincially set restrictions on the age of their customers. They don't even need a permit from the province to operate.

Tattoo artist Amber Thorpe has called for regulation in the industry for years. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Amber Thorpe has seen her share of tattoo horror stories.

"The worst I probably have seen is I could fit the end of an eraser into the person's skin. It was that eaten away and gross," said the owner of Adept Tattoos, which has been in business for 12 years and has locations in Halifax and Bedford.

"I just told them, like, 'You need to go to the hospital or to a clinic and … you're going to need some creams and ointments and antibiotics for sure on that.'"

Thorpe has been advocating for regulations in the industry for years. She moved from Alberta and said when she came to Nova Scotia she "couldn't believe" she didn't need a health inspector to make sure her tattoo facility was safe.

"The fact that I didn't even need hot and cold running water or a sterilizer on site kind of took me off guard."

Tattoo artists in some other provinces must follow stringent rules. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Other provinces and cities have strict rules about inspections, sterilization procedures, handwashing and equipment.

"But when you have people who have no idea and they're buying equipment off eBay or Amazon or Wish … and then they're practising on a friend in a basement … this is when it becomes more unsafe," Thorpe said.

Rebecca O'Quinn, the owner of Heirloom Tattoo in Halifax and the sister of Lisa O'Quinn, said the lack of oversight means customers may be at risk.

She said she's heard of problems, including staph infections, tattoos not healing properly and "hardcore scabbing." Infections such as hepatitis C and HIV are also possible if a customer is exposed to a contaminated needle.

Rebecca O'Quinn, owner of Heirloom Tattoo in Halifax, works on a client's tattoo. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

In 2016, customers of two Cape Breton tattoo artists were advised to see a doctor after the Nova Scotia Health Authority said the artists couldn't prove they were using sufficient sterilization techniques.

O'Quinn opened her shop about a year and a half ago, but before that, she worked in the industry in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario over a four-year period. She said she has taken courses on blood-borne pathogens and tries to follow Alberta's regulations in her shop.

Although many tattoo providers are safe and reputable, there are some that don't follow safe practices, she said.

"The main one being not proper handwashing or, like, not washing their hands at all … changing garbages without gloves, razors on the floor, needles on the floor," she said. "Since we don't have those regulations in place, it's easy for them to just kind of do whatever they want."

O'Quinn says it's important for artists to use barriers such as plastic bags on their equipment. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The province's director of environmental health and food safety programs said designing regulations is a "complex process."

Karen Wong-Petrie said that process was slowed in 2015, when the Environment Department took over most of the province's enforcement responsibilities and staff had to revisit their draft regulations, conduct a new round of consultations and make changes.

She expects to put forward draft regulations early in 2018.

In the meantime, there are no regular inspections of tattooing or piercing facilities in Nova Scotia. The province only does one if a complaint is filed.

Tattoo shops in Nova Scotia are only inspected if someone files a complaint. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Through the Freedom of Information Act, CBC News requested records related to complaints in the industry since 2011, but the province said there is no database with those records and there has been no consistent way of tracking them over the years.

Staff at the Environment Department, which manages inspections for the province, would have to weed through six years of paper files to find complaints specifically about body art facilities. The province told CBC News it would cost about $990 to find and pull those records.

Wong-Petrie said there are likely roughly five complaints about body art facilities across the province each year and the department is working on creating a database for them.

Anyone who wishes to file a complaint about a body art facility can do so online, Wong-Petrie said.

No formal orders issued

Right now, when a complaint comes in, the province uses the Health Protection Act to investigate. Medical officers of health can recommend or require changes at a facility, including prohibiting an operation from providing service.

Wong-Petrie said any health hazards that have been identified through complaints have been resolved, but no formal orders have been issued under the act. Some operators have chosen to stop offering a particular service because they weren't able to comply with the recommended corrective action, she said.​

The province says draft regulations are expected early this year. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Andy Ferrier of Utility Tattoo in Halifax said he'll feel more at ease when regulations are introduced, but said it's unlikely the province will be able to catch everyone tattooing unsafely.

"That's always been happening. And behind closed doors, I'm sure it will keep happening," he said.

About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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