FARGO - A warning against “kitchen wizards” and “scratchers,” or those who illegal provide body art like tattoos and piercings, was issued Wednesday, June 28, by Fargo Cass Public Health.

“Having a body art procedure performed in an unlicensed establishment and by someone who is not licensed poses the same risk as sharing needles through drug use,” Public Health said in a statement.

There is a “misconception” that receiving tattoos or piercings under the table does not warrant risks of infection like HIV or hepatitis C (HCV), Public Health said. However, there are recent cases here that prove going to a professional reduces that risk.

A mother reported a group of young girls giving each other belly button piercings at a north Fargo park, though officials were not able to contact the minors directly, said Grant Larson, Public Health director of environmental health. And an unidentified man from here recently contracted HIV believed to be caused by an illegal body art procedure identified as the highest risk factor. But the virus in this case, like others, could also be linked to sex and drug use.

That’s why the North Dakota Department of Health is gathering more information from those age 35 and younger diagnosed with HCV, but the data is not yet available. What is known is the number of newly diagnosed cases of HIV has increased by 200 percent in the last five years and HCV saw a 43 percent increase.

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In 2012, the department reported 16 newly diagnosed cases of HIV in the state. That number jumped to 50 last year. Seven of the cases listed needles - either for drugs or body art - as the highest risk factor.

There were 730 newly diagnosed cases of HCV in 2012 and that number reached 1,047 last year. State epidemiologist Brenton Nesemeier attributed the high rate of hepatitis to the “heartiness” of the virus, which can live on surfaces for a month and in the needle for up to six months.

“We encourage anyone who has had an illegal body art procedure to go in and be tested just for peace of mind,” Nesemeier said.

‘Make sure it's clean and sanitary’

Paul Johnson, 47, owner of 46 and 2 Tattoo shop in Fargo, has been tattooing for 17 years. Before he ever picked up a needle in his apprenticeship, he needed to know how to properly clean and sanitize everything in the shop, he said.

It’s rare, but he tattoos people who check “yes” on the waiver form that they have HIV, although people can lie and health officials say HIV is often carried by people who don’t know they’re infected, making it easier to spread.

“If you treat everyone like they have it, you can be prepared to not get it,” Johnson said.

“We’re constantly checking and double-checking each other to make sure we’re doing things properly, because it's when someone starts to slide they [Public Health] can pull the shop license and then none of us can tattoo,” Johnson said.

From washing hands and wearing gloves, to disposing of needles with expiration dates and using plastic-covered tattoo guns, Johnson’s shop strictly complies with the city of Fargo’s Body Art Municipal Code. He and his six employees are trained in bloodborne pathogens, licensed, regulated and inspected by Public Health to regulate potential health and safety concerns associated with unsanitary practices and premises.

Johnson said not only is going to professionals for tattoos and piercings safer, the quality of the body art is better. Customers can come in for free touch-ups within three months of getting a tattoo from artists with years of experience and educational training, he said.

“We don't regulate quality, but we do control environment to make sure it's clean and sanitary,” Larson said.

When precautions are overlooked by those giving and receiving tattoos or piercings underground, Johnson said he will get customers who come in to get illegal body art fixed. It means they’re going to end up spending more money, when it’s likely they got it done underground because it’s cheaper, he said.

“They think it’s a very innocent thing,” Johnson said. “Kitchen wizards see it as trying to make money, they don't think about the ramifications. To this day, I see pictures online of people tattooing in someone's house without gloves, there's a cat hanging out and it's like good grief. At what point are you just like, ‘Why don’t we just go down to the pharmacy and see what diseases we can pick up and rub that in?’ ”

For more information, visit http://fargond.gov/city www.FargoND.gov/apply-government/departments/fargo-cass-public-health/health-inspections/environmental-health/body-art.