by Will Ryan
Everyone knows of some ratty tattoo parlor on the wrong side of the tracks. The one with the greasy windows and the eerie neon glow emanating from somewhere within. It’s a place you’d hesitate asking someone to change your oil, let alone pierce you with a needle.
It used to be one had to brave such environs to enter the legions of the inked and pierced. But with the recent explosion in the popularity of body art, there has been far greater demand by customers for studios that are not only clean and sterile but whose artists possess a depth of knowledge about human physiology and the risks associated with different types of piercing and tattooing procedures.
Gwynn "Wolf" Wolfstar, RN and Tara Gray-Wolfstar, RN are co-owners and operators of Enchanted Ink Body Art Studio in Boulder, and are the only body artists in Colorado who are also registered nurses. Wolf handles the piercing business, while Tara performs tattooing and mehndi art.
Between them there is some debate over whose idea it was in 1998 to start the Pearl Street business, but both agree it has been a venture greatly aided by their over 30 years of combined experience in the nursing profession. Those years have included stints by both women in many facets of nursing, including trauma, homecare, phone triage, as well as administration.
"As nurses, we’re more aware of healing processes, knowing what things work and what doesn’t work," Tara said during a recent weekday at the shop. "If people go into needle shock or have an endorphin reaction, I think we’re a lot better equipped to handle those situations and I think people feel a lot better knowing they’re with nurses."
Kate Miller, a longtime customer and sixth-grade teacher from Arvada, agrees.
"There is a big appeal to them being nurses," Miller said while Tara inked a bride of Frankenstein onto her already extensively tattooed right arm. "Knowing the health standards are way up there is a real good thing."
Miller’s first tattoo experience was seven years ago in a more "hard-core" shop. She hadn’t been confident of its cleanliness or the quality of work. When she first walked into Enchanted Ink, she was looking for a better environment and overall experience.
"I liked that it was pink in here—and clean," Miller said. "When I started getting tattoos, I was a little more conservative. I think I could handle that other place now. But back then I was scared."
The most common health risks associated with tattooing are allergic reactions to the ink dyes, as well as infection of the wound if it isn’t properly cared for in the weeks following the procedure. Also, if a tattoo shop does not sterilize equipment properly, blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis, can be transmitted.
In Colorado there are some laws on the books to ensure proper sterilization and cleanliness of tattoo and piercing facilities, but compliance and enforcement can often be spotty. Additionally, body artists themselves are not required to have a formal state registration, so much of the onus is on the customer to be comfortable with a particular shop and artist.
As for piercing, the most common health effects are allergic metal reactions and infections. Allergic reactions usually occur to nickel, a component in many alloys. Proper pre-screening of customers can often be the key to avoiding such occurrences.
"We, as an industry, have to be careful what kind of metal we are inserting into people," Wolf said. "As nurses, I think we are able to troubleshoot more and make recommendations on what might be trouble piercings or potential metal reactions."
Some jewelry metals can also be porous, making cleaning difficult, as well as enabling tissue attachment to the metal itself. With piercings being done in more and more parts of the body, it is increasingly important for piercers to have a keen knowledge of human anatomy, as well as how to treat issues if something goes wrong.
As with tattoos, aftercare of piercings is perhaps the most important aspect of the process. Depending on the part of the body being pierced, holes can take anywhere from three to 10 months to heal. During that time, it is imperative that the location be regularly cleaned and cared for.
"Lots of piercers go overboard recommending anti-bacterial soaps and rinses," Wolf said. "We usually recommend nothing more than castile soap or a sea-salt rinse for the oral piercings," Wolf said.
Both Wolf and Tara have maintained their nursing registrations since opening their shop and often give seminars to local health professionals about piercing and other body art issues. They have also been active in lobbying the state legislature to enact stricter regulations for the industry, such as the state’s 2000 law requiring parental consent for minors.
As nurses, Tara and Wolf say they have felt an urge to do something for the tsunami victims of Southeast Asia and Eastern Africa. During the months of January and February, they will be donating 25 percent of their body art revenues and 10 percent of their jewelry sales to the medical relief effort.
"We can’t go over to help out directly, so we figured we could give some of our profits," Wolf said. "It is important to get these people who now have nothing the medical relief they need."
As for becoming a body art entrepreneur, Tara and Wolf caution that it is not something that should be taken lightly or undertaken by just anybody, even if he or she has a medical background.
"I wouldn’t recommend stepping into body art without thoroughly studying it first," Wolf said. "It really has to be considered as its own specialty."