Unlicensed tattoo parlors putting teens at risk

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PORTLAND - It's a very common sight in Portland - ink.

An estimated one in five adults now has a tattoo. And even though it's illegal for anyone under 18 to get one in Oregon, just look around, teens are getting them.

Unit 8 wanted to find out how big a problem this is. There are some serious health consequences if tattoos are not given safely.

Sharing a needle for instance, can spread certain diseases like hepatitis and HIV. Then, there's risk of infection.

All risks the state of Oregon is trying to prevent. But, it means people have to follow the rules and that's not always happening.

"Yeah, the one on my neck is underage," said Leray Roske, 23.

When she was 17, she said she made a very bad decision, "My friend just put a tattoo gun together and did it," she said. And now looking back, she said. "I regret both my tattoos because they're permanent. They're there for life and I didn't really plan it through."

The more we talked to teens or young adults who got tattoos as a minor, the more the stories sounded the same.

Over the last three years, the state has seen an increase of people giving tattoos out of their homes.

"You can have a home facility, you just have to have it licensed," said Kraig Bohot, public information officer with Oregon Health Licensing Agency (OHLA) "Unlicensed tattooing activity is really what's been an issue [over] the last several years," he said.

But the task of finding people breaking the law can be daunting. Four investigators keep tabs on all body piercing and tattoos in the state of Oregon.

That includes "artists" tattooing minors.

"There seems within [the past] year, we get four or five complaints about tattooing minors. It's an ongoing issue and an ongoing concern," said Bohot.

"We've had some parents call the shop and ask if their minors have gotten tattoos here and describe the tattoo because they're looking for the artist that did it. Luckily, it wasn't us," said Kristi Rathert, the manager at Infinity Tattoo.

Artists at Infinity Tattoo on North Lombard Street are all licensed and very careful about who they ink.

"It doesn't matter if you're 18 or if you're 80, we card everybody," said Rathert. "It can be extremely dangerous.

"You don't want to take the risk," said tattoo artist Alice Kendall.

Kendall has been an artist for 12 years. "You have to protect yourself and your clients," said Rathert because a risky tattoo can carry serious consequences.

"Some of the infections, when there have been outbreaks, have actually been contaminated ink itself so it needs to be coming from a reputable company," said Katrina Hedberg, MD, Oregon State Epidemiologist.

She added, "I think the main thing is for people to be fully aware of what they're getting into."

Dylan Woolf has several tattoos and always checks for a clean needle coming strait out of the plastic. He has advice for minors thinking of getting one

"It was definitely good to wait." And if anyone can relate, it's Roske. "Think it through. Think the precautions, the safety and that it's going to stay on your body for the rest of your life," she said.

The Oregon Health Licensing Agency admitted that there are some improvements that could be made in their system right now including what the customer can find out online about a tattoo artist.

The state gets a handful of complaints a year. But, from what we discovered, it can be hard to tell just how widespread the problem really is, because the only way the state has to find out about problems are by getting a complaint or doing a spot inspection.