IMPORTANT NOTE: This section refers to tattooing specifically, and not to other forms of bodyart. Some, such as piercing and cutting, require the breaking of the client's skin to a deeper level than what is achieved with a modern tattoo machine.
This section on AIDS & Tattooing has been contributed by Nick "Buccaneer" Baban, who studied at the Univ. of Michigan School of Public Health, Dept. of Epidemiology. He spent the summer researching AIDS and IV drug use in NYC. "I'm not an expert, but I consider myself knowledgable. Any furthur questions about AIDS can be e-mailed to me." Obviously there is some concern about AIDS and tattooing because when you get a tattoo, you bleed. But the mechanism of transmission needs to be better understood.
AIDS is transmitted by intimate contact with bodily fluids, blood and semen being the most comon. Intimate contact means that the fluid carrying the AIDS virus (HIV) enters into your system.
Injection drug users (IDUs) use hollow medical syringes and needles to inject drugs directly into their bloodstream. It is common practice to withdraw a little blood back into the syringe to delay the onset of the high. When needles are passed from IDU to IDU and reused without sterilization, some of that blood remains in the syringe and is passed on to the next user. If infected blood is passed, the recipient can become infected with HIV, which leads to AIDS.
Tattooing is VERY different from injecting drugs. The needles used in tattooing are not hollow. They do, however, travel back and forth through a hollow tube that acts as an ink reservoir. The tip of the tube is dipped into the ink, which draws a little into the tube. As the needle withdraws into the tube, it gets coated with ink. When it comes forward, it pierces your skin and deposits the ink. You then bleed a little through the needle hole. This happens several hundred times a second.
You are only at risk of infection if you come in contact with infected blood. Since it is only *your* skin that is being pierced during the tattooing process, only *your* blood is being exposed. This means that the only person at greater risk is the artist, because s/he is the only one coming in contact with someone else's (potentially infected) blood. This is why reputable (and sane) tattoo artist wears surgical gloves while working.
Another source of infection is through the use of infected tools. *This is why it is IMPERATIVE that you make sure your tattoo artist uses sterile equipment.* Needles and tubes need to be autoclaved before EACH AND EVERY time they are used. Ink should come from separate cups and not directly from the bottle. Any leftover ink should be disposed of and not reused under ANY circumstances.
The key to HIV transmission is *transfer of bodily fluids.* Evidence indicates that infection may require a (relatively) substantial ammount of fluid to be passed. A pin prick almost certainly won't do it. HIV is also a very fragile virus that cannot survive long outside the human body, and is very easy to kill via autoclaving. (I have heard of using bleach to sterilize needles. While bleach is an effective HIV killer, I'm not sure of the procedures for cleaning the equipment after bleach cleaning. As I personally have no desire to have bleach put under my skin, I go with autoclaving as the proper way to sterilize).
If your tattooer maintains sterile conditions and proceedures, there is almost no risk of infection. I say "almost" because any risk, no matter how miniscule, is still a risk and must be recognized. That said, I am the proud owner of a Jolly Roger tattoo on my right shoulder because I knew my tattooist and knew he had sterile conditions.