India's ₹20,000 crore tattoo industry's lax standards are putting lives at risk

India's ₹20,000 crore tattoo industry's lax standards are putting lives at risk
India's tattoo industry doesn't have regulation in place to monitor hygiene practicesUnsplash

  • India's tattoo industry is burgeoning, estimated to generate around ₹20,000 crore every year.
  • But there are no regulations or laws in place to monitor hygiene and best practices.
  • The lax standards increase the risk of contamination, not only for customers but for unaware artists as well.
Right from beachside stalls at Goa to professional studios at malls, the Indian tattoo industry is bright and booming. It is estimated to generate an annual revenue of ₹20,000 crore. Yet, this heavily fragmented business also lacks something else — regulation and safety.

"There's no regulation in India and nobody even bothers — because regulation would be mean taxes. Most tattoo artists aren't paying GST aside from the select few that have professional studios set up," Vikas Malani, the founder and co-owner of Body Canvas Tattoos, told Business Insider India.

Malani has been in the business for nearly two decades with multiple tattoo studios in Mumbai, Delhi and London. He also worked with with celebrities like cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Bollywood actors Anushka Sharma and John Abraham.

He explains that until regulations are in place, no one is obligated to follow any hygiene standards or even use the proper tools.

"Tattooing isn't just an art, it's a science," he explains, "If you compromise and don't follow hygiene standards, your customer could end up losing his or her life."

Flouting standards for cheaper inks

Tattooing is not so far from science, medical science primarily. Every time a tattoo needle makes contact with a person, it's also coming in contact with their skin, their blood and the plasma.

And, as it penetrates the skin, the ink drops — or pigments — are released into the bloodstream.

This is where regulation should come in.

Ideally, the ink used for tattooing should be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or a similar such authority. This is to ensure that there are no metal particles in it — like mercury, nickel or lead. These metals can poison the human body if they enter the bloodstream.

But, that isn't always the case. The FDA recently banned six brands from manufacturing body ink but, in India, they are still in circulation.

"As many as 80% of the tattoo artists in India are still using these brands because they're cheap — because suppliers are making maximum profits off of these brands," shared Malani.

Keeping it not-so-clean

The hygiene of the tattoo studio is yet another significant factor. A professional environment to clean surroundings can have a huge impact on the tattoo quality and the incidence of infection.

Malani believes that surgical precision needs to be maintained by tattoo parlours. Anything that comes in contact with a customer during the process has to be disposed off. But, in reality not everything goes into the dustbin.

They need to be disposed off in a biohazard box, which in turn, gets picked up by a hospital every month. Metal parts used to make the tattoo have to be sterilized.

Artists make 90% of the mistakes

"As many as 90% of the errors happen by the tattoo artists. The rest 10% where clients are responsible, is only when they don't follow after care," said Malani.

An artist should be using gloves when working on a tattoo. Not just normal examination gloves but sterile gloves meant for surgical use.

More importantly, artists should also sterilize the area that is going to be tattooed — similar to how nurses sterilize an injection site before delivering a shot.

Otherwise, all the germs from travelling or from having pets at home will go right inside a person's bloodstream as the needle penetrates the skin — multiple times.

Lastly, artists shouldn't be tinkering around with their phones as they make a tattoo — even if they are wearing gloves. One, all the germs from the phone get transferred onto the gloves which will then touch the tattooed area. Two, the blood and other bodily fluids from the client will get onto the phone.

That means once the gloves are off, the germs on the phone will end up back on the hands. It's possible that those hands might touch a third person and start a wider contamination.

Technology makes it personal

Just as the sophistication of tattoo designs has evolved over time, so has the technology.

Earlier artists used to employ magnetic coil machines, which were so simple that anyone can rig them at home. Now, they have rotary machines at their disposal from companies like the Germany-based Cheyenne, which has their own brain to keep the machine from damaging the skin.

"The mindset of the people will not change. But, what can change is the use of technology. The I upgrade the technology, the better and more comfortable they feel," states Malani.

He claims that the new machines have advanced to such an extent that the pain of getting a tattoo is gone and the risk of infection is negated.

Each machine is designed to a particular type of skin — soft, hard, dry, medium texture, oil and sensitive. Accordingly, companies developed four to five different variants.

Malani explains that the darker the skin, thicker it gets. The thicker the skin, the strokes of the tattoo needle need to be bigger and dense in order to leave ink behind.

White skin , for instance, is thin so it only requires a needle that goes 2.5 millimeters deep. Brown skin, on the other hard, is thicker so it may require a needle that goes 3.5 millimeters to 4 millimeters deep.

The innovation of these machines is giving a boost to the tattoo industry worldwide, according to Malani.