Laura Dawe is a stick-and-poke artist. She tattoos out of her apartment with a sewing needle and thread. Dawe says she prefers the sewing needle to the professional tattoo gun, which "changes the experience." The stick-and-poke is more real, she says.
"I don't have a licence," she says. "I'm not giving tattoos for money. When you pay to go to a tattoo parlour, you're paying for a professional product and you're paying for the guarantee that it's going to meet certain health standards---and when you come to me, you're kind of taking a risk. We're sharing something beautiful together."
But while widespread, Dawe's belief that tattoo parlours are regulated for health and safety, or that tattoo artists must meet standards for professionalism and ability, is simply wrong.
Standards for a broad range of tradespeople---including barbers, cosmetologists, interior designers and veterinarians---are established and enforced by professional regulatory bodies, but there are no legally enforceable tattoo regulations in Nova Scotia.
Anyone can open a tattoo studio with no training. There are no inspections; there is no licence or certification required. Customers concerned about dirty needles, contamination or possible infection with hepatitis or other diseases are completely on their own.
Amber Thorpe, owner of Adept Tattoos and Body Piercing Studio on Quinpool Road, is originally from Alberta, where tattoo studios are regulated and inspected by the government. When Thorpe came to Halifax to open up her own shop, she called around to book the health inspector and find out what she had to do to open her doors.
"They were like, 'You don't need to do anything,' and I said, 'I don't even have to have hot and cold running water?' and said, 'No.' That's kind of sad."
Thorpe says she's made it part of her life's mission to try to improve the standards of health and safety in tattoo studios.
The tattoo industry is considered to be self-regulated, so Thorpe started the Maritime Tattoo Festival, which offers seminars and courses for tattoo artists to learn about blood-borne pathogens and new tattooing and piercing techniques.
Most tattoo artists learn their trade through apprenticeships. Although a big part of his apprenticeship at Custom Canvas involves learning to clean and sterilize, Mike Bishop says he still wishes tattoo studios were regulated here.
"Trying to find a good apprenticeship is hard enough without the not-so-reputable ," he says. "If we had standards, it would definitely change the way things are around here. It would get rid of basement artists."
Stephen Parker, director of environmental health at the Nova Scotia Department of Health Promotion and Protection, says that unsanitary conditions in tattoo studios are "not often an issue."
Parker says that though there are no tattoo regulations in this province, the department will investigate complaints of unsanitary tattoo studios under the Health Protection Act.
According to Parker, the tattoo industry has done a good job of improving standards and regulating itself. In the last 20 years, he says, tattooing has gone from something for "bikers and sailors" to being widespread.
"You're seeing a lot of professionals seek out tattooists to get a tattoo and I think that that knowledgeable sector of society has essentially forced the tattoo industry to raise the bar."
Parker says he's seen no "issues related to the tattooists in this province in the recent past," but figuring out how to manage tattooing in the province "is still a priority issue."
Two years ago, The Coast reported that the Department of Health Promotion and Protection was "discussing" tattooing regulations. To date, no regulations have been formulated, much less imposed on the industry.
How much longer it will take for a regulatory framework to be adopted? Parker doesn't know.
In the meantime, Thorpe says if you're looking for a safe tattoo studio, look for barrier control (bags over anything the artist might come in contact with) and a biological testing certificate at the front counter. "Ask the artist how they learned cross-contamination and if they had an apprenticeship."