The hum of the needle trails out from underneath the steady hand of the artist.
Their public display of artistry is done under a watchful eye, just not the one you’re expecting. Because when you’re talking about tattooing, whether the artist is safe is considered more important than whether they’re good.
At least to the Baltimore City Health Department.
At Baltimore’s Tattoo Convention, where thousands get inked each year, the flipside of creativity is the question of cleanliness. Organizer Troy Timple says, "It's incredibly important in our industry to have it monitored."
In Baltimore, teams of inspectors from the health department are required to monitor what happens when artists put pen to skin for permanent art. Patricia Vauls supervised the inspections that happened at the recent convention and that occur on an annual basis for shops in the city.
"We want to make sure it's been done safely, that they're using disposable needles, and using those needles correctly," Vauls said.
In Baltimore, a specific code requires that tattoo shops be checked each year before they’re issued a new license. It’s a matter of law but that level of oversight doesn't happen everywhere in Maryland.
"When people go into an actual tattoo business, I think they assume that there must be some regulation behind it," Calvert County Health Commissioner Dr. Larry Polsky told us.
And there is a regulation on the books at the state level. Maryland has a lengthy code that outlines tattoo regulations. But Polsky points out it doesn’t require licensing or routine inspections at the local level, so many counties don’t do either.
Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard Counties are among the jurisdictions that don’t do annual inspections of tattoo shops, instead opting to investigate complaints after there’s a problem.
Tattoo artist Dave Myers has been asked to repair a lot of problems along the way.
“There are so many horror stories,” he said.
Bad tattoos can lead to more than just scars that artists like Myers are called in to fix. Experts say bad techniques and dirty needles can leave people with diseases including hepatitis and skin infections, although it’s tough to gauge exact numbers for complications because they’re not a reportable condition.
"These are invasive procedures and there are real risks," Polsky said.
The potential for health problems is one reason Calvert County wanted to do more than just respond to complaints. Under Polsky’s watch, the county worked with local tattoo shop owners to create and implement new regulations that license shops, require inspections and enforce stricter rules.
“We need the cooperation of the owners to do the right thing because we're not going to be there seven days a week to monitor them,” Polsky said.
Dottie Fortner not only supports Calvert County’s new regs, she helped craft them. Her family’s tattoo shop, Red Octopus in Prince Frederick, has been around for decades. These new regulations, she says, are just an evolution to the art.
“It's still an old craft but we have to keep up with everything the health department wants us to do,” she said.
For Fortner, what’s required differs depending on where her shop is located. She’s got four tattoo shops, located in different counties. But now she has them all playing by the rules developed to oversee her operation in Calvert County.
Artists like Myers, who works at Red Octopus, say the regs help them clean up the image of tattooing, without taking away their edge as artists working in a legitimate shop.
“To have them come here, it's comfortable,” he said “It's safe. It's clean. I can guarantee that and there's nothing wrong with that."