Tattooists' new union to leave its mark on unregulated trade

A generation ago they were considered part of a louche underworld frequented by criminals and bikers. Now, the nation's tattooists, whose customers range from royalty to film stars, have ultimate proof of their mainstream status - a union card.

A generation ago they were considered part of a louche underworld frequented by criminals and bikers. Now, the nation's tattooists, whose customers range from royalty to film stars, have ultimate proof of their mainstream status - a union card.

The first trade union for Britain's 1,500 tattooists and body-piercers was announced yesterday after the GMB said it was setting up a branch to represent their interests.

Body art, once the preserve of a minority of aficionados and drunken sailors or husbands-to-be on a stag night, has boomed in the past decade. An estimated two million Britons now have a tattoo or a piercing with celebrities such as David Beckham, Britney Spears and even Zara Phillips, daughter of the Princess Royal, proudly sporting their adorned bodies.

But as the industry has expanded from a few hundred studios nationwide to more than 500 in London alone, so too has the potential for untrained operators to set themselves up in a trade that remains largely unregulated.

Naresh, a tattoo artist for 16 years in north London, who will be the GMB's branch representative, said: "The art has changed beyond recognition. It used to be that people would come into a studio, point to a picture and that is what they would get.

"Now, we get people from barristers to surgeons coming knowing exactly what they want. It is possible to set up with little or no training.

"As a union we can give tattooists and body piercers the collective voice they have never had to set minimum standards and create the sort of qualifications that we think will work."

The union branch, to be known as the Tattoo and Piercing Industry (TPI), is the latest in a series established by the GMB, which has 650,000 members, for marginal or previously unrepresented trades. In the past two years it has set up branches for sex workers, London's licensed mini-cab drivers and roadies for pop bands.

Body piercers and tattooists, whose arts derives from the Tahitian word "tataou", meaning tapping the skin, are regulated by two items of legislation - one which prevents anyone aged under the age of 18 from having a tattoo and general health and hygiene rules which are enforced by local authorities.

The sudden increase in body piercings has given rise among health professionals that poor hygiene and techniques are responsible for the growing prevalence of injuries and infection.

A survey by the Royal College of Nursing of GPs in Rochdale found that 95 per cent had dealt with medical complications resulting from a body piercing. More than three quarters of the problems involved infections.

Tattooists are also concerned that untrained operators are flouting hygiene rules which, in extreme cases, can lead to the transmission through dirty needles of diseases such as hepatitis B and C and HIV.

John McKechnie, a tattooist for 30 years who runs the Naughty Needles studio in Bolton, said: "Tattooing machinery is too easily obtainable and all too often untrained people don't know about strict hygiene rules. It's about time we sorted out a union."

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