Melissa Ellis knocked on the door and was refused entry, according to the official report.
And that is also essentially the way Gwynn “Wolf ” Wolfstar and Tara Gray-Wolfstar retell the story.
It was Oct. 6 before Wolfstar and Gray-Wolfstar were able to pick up the certified letter sent from the health department, informing them that they were being fined $250 for refusing entry to a health department inspector and needed to pay the fine by Sept. 17.
The letter was dated Sept. 23. This isn’t the only time Ellis has been denied entry, but she hasn’t fined anyone for it before.
“I’ve had businesses say to me, Melissa, this is a really bad time, and so I’ve left. So that’s not entirely out of line for somebody to request a different time, but this wasn’t a nice request,” Ellis says.
Wolfstar and Gray-Wolfstar took the matter to the public health division manager, Joe Malinowski, and the fine was dismissed.
“We’re RNs [registered nurses],” Wolfstar says.
“We’re in favor of public safety. We’re not opposed to the regulations, but we’re opposed to capricious enforcement — inconsistent, retaliatory enforcement,” Wolfstar says. “The county doesn’t consistently enforce the rules, or seem to know and understand the rules.”
Wolfstar and Gray-Wolfstar are part of a group of body artists who have begun to object to the way Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) runs its body art program, particularly after the licensing fee for body art establishments nearly tripled this year. Body artists say if they’re going to pay more, they want a program that works, instead of one in which rules appear to be enforced arbitrarily and the inspections process often fails to be effective. That, or get rid of the program altogether, save the county the cost and fall back on state regulations, they say.
Tattoo artists at two tattoo shops on the Hill, Tribal Rites and Immortal Ink, say they were written up for improper sharps disposal because they were throwing away single-use disposable razors — the kind for shaving legs or facial hair — in the trash. Ellis says they needed to dispose of these razors in a sharps disposal container, but disposable razors are specifically exempted from disposal in sharps containers by the state regulations. Boulder County is revising its regulations to include disposable razors on required sharps disposal, but those regulations won’t be approved until early next year.
A county inspection covers body artists’ training and hygienic practices, employee and client records, the cleanliness and condition of the studio, the number of and access to sinks, the equipment used, and how it’s disposed of or sterilized. Details like dat- ing and labeling chemicals and a date and sterilization indicator for packs containing needles are also on the list.
Ellis says she starts an inspection with the paperwork — checking client consent forms, after-care forms, employee records and spore tests.
“Then it just sort of depends from there,” she says.
“Usually we’ll go through all the stations. It’s nice to see somebody working, setting up or breaking down. If nobody’s working, then I ask them a lot of questions.”
She checks to see how they wash their hands, she says. Some of the tattoo artists say they don’t always see her wash hers, although she says she does.
“A lot of these things are stuff that if you didn’t have a camera here watching me, you’d have no way of knowing,” says Jason Breidner, owner of Immortal Ink. “It’s like, ‘Are you using clean needles, Jason?’ ‘Sure, Melissa, I’m using clean needles. Here they are.’ How do you really know? You have no way of knowing. At a certain point, it’s like how do you know they wash their hands at the restaurant? You don’t.”
“It’s kind of a joke, to be honest with you,” says Lance Talon, owner of Bolder Ink. “They don’t tattoo. They don’t know how to tattoo.”
Tattoo artists agree that the key way to transmit disease between clients would be in the actual tattooing and piercing process, but only some of them say Ellis has watched them do a procedure.
“I’ve never felt that Melissa was very effective. I always felt she was not very informed,” Gray-Wolfstar says. She and Wolfstar each have 25 years of experience as nurses. “[Where] the regulations stopped she did not have the medical reasoning. She had a list of regulations.”
Body artists, who normally compete with one another for business, joined together to object to the body art program this year after the fee increased from $250 to $680 for a body art establishment doing both tattooing and piercing.
“As far as the percentages, it definitely is a big step,” says Lane Drager, consumer protection program coordinator for BCPH. “The Board of Health was looking at full cost recovery, and looking at full cost recovery, this is an incremental step.”
Public health department officials want to make the program pay for itself, charging body artists as much as it costs to run the program. The increase brings them to about 60 percent of that.
In 2011, the fee is expected to increase again, but officials won’t say by how much. If $680 is about 60 percent of full cost recovery, getting the fees to pay for the whole program could mean charging fees of closer to $1,000.
The fee is designed to cover the cost of inspections and outreach. This year, each of the 25 establishments got one inspection, and Drager estimated each inspection costs the department between $80 and $200.
Some of the body artists say they’d be willing to pay more if they were getting more — a high-quality inspection program, services to the artists and some educational outreach throughout the year. Instead, they say they’re getting less — fewer inspections and relying on spore tests, which check that autoclaves are effectively sterilizing equipment that’s reused, but spore test results can be inaccurate.
“If we’re going to pay over $1,000 for a licensing fee, I’m just wondering what we’re getting out of this,” Talon says.
And they want to know what it’s going to cost them to stay in business next year.
The health department has held meetings with the body artists and discussed the changes in fees and the changes in regulations, but some say key concerns have gone unheard. Artists have been bringing up issues like piercing pagodas, which reuse piercing guns but aren’t required to have an autoclave to sterilize them, and unlicensed, at-home tattoo artists, and say they have seen little response from the department on those issues.
“We feel powerless to control our industry, and the increased fees and increased oversight feel like extortion,” says Phill Bartell, owner of Rising Tide Tattoo.
Carlos Haas, a tattoo artist for Tribal Rites, is near legendary for his encyclopedic knowledge of body art regulations and programs, his work collecting data, including meeting minutes and audio recordings of meetings, and his subsequent list of questions on the way the body art program is run in Boulder County. And yes, he admits, he can ramble.
He’s been such a regular attendee at Board of Health meetings that BCPH administrative staff have e-mailed him to let him know when a meeting is canceled. He’s served as a proxy, reading written statements, for both Wolfstar and Mike Shugar, owner of Tribal Rites.
But when health department officials sat down on Oct. 25 to talk to body artists about the proposed revisions to the rules and regulations and the fee schedule, Haas was asked not to attend.
“I think we really had spent a lot of time addressing any questions or requests for information and had multiple sit-down meetings with Carlos and the facility owner, Mike Shugar,” Drager says. “He had hours and hours of historic reference to provide whatever things he was looking for, and his presence at meetings had been disruptive.”
The final decision, Drager says, was to give other artists the opportunity to be heard.
“It doesn’t matter how much I know, because government is going to win either way,” Haas says. “I’m not all about the money. I just want to make sure if I want to open up a one-room studio in Boulder that I can do that. Just pay the rent and be an artist. … I don’t want to pay my first $2,000 for something that doesn’t have the value.”
Karl Schiemann, environmental specialist for the Denver Department of Environmental Health, has worked with counties across the Front Range over the past decade as they’ve written regulations for body art.
“It’s a weird little beast,” he says.
“Piercing and body modification really didn’t take off until the late ’90s, and I don’t think health departments have really caught up with it until recently.”
It’s been a learning process, he says, and he’s seen health departments come into that process with a lack of knowledge about what they’re regulating.
“Nobody knows how to handle this animal,” he says. “It’s a different animal than what we’ve ever seen. It’s not something we’re familiar with and it’s a different language.”
When Schiemann was trained as a body art establishment inspector, he said, he was taught to focus on details like carefully checking client paperwork and harshly enforcing spore-testing logs. It was only after getting more training, attending things like the educational conference held annually by the Association of Professional Piercers, that he started to recognize that the emphasis was misplaced, that there was only so much you could learn from the paperwork that was useful, and that the spore tests turn back inaccurate results.
What no one talked about was washing his hands. “I wasn’t trained that way, but Alicia Cardenas [the former president of the Association of Professional Piercers] looked at me and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he says.
There’s no way to inspect that a sterilized bag is sealed properly and dated without touching it, he said, and no way to do that without contaminating it unless you’ve washed your hands and gloved them, and then washed them when switching inspection areas.
“The outside of that package is going to be in touch with the procedure area and the work area, and it needs to be handled in such a way that it reduces any chance of introducing anything,” he says.
Body art regulations are unique as public health regulations because they’re designed to protect both the consumers and the artists, who are exposed to blood on a daily basis for the 20 or 30 years of their careers.
It inspires a lot of self-regulation, body artists say. They don’t want to transmit anything to themselves any more than they’d want to transmit it to someone else. And since they’re inspired to regulate themselves, they’ve started talking about the benefits of eliminating the program.
In 2009, Denver discontinued its regular inspections because of budgetary constraints, and now inspections are done only occasionally. There have been no reported incidents of disease transmission, and though they do still get complaints, many have little to do with what happened in the tattoo studio.
“I would say probably 99 percent of what comes through the phone is usually something that the person who received the body art did after the fact,” Schiemann says. “It’s rarely related to the studio.”
If Wolfstar and Gray-Wolfstar were running the program, which they say they’d be happy to do for $12,000 a year (what the health department makes in licensing fees), they’d find space in the budget for a sting to bust scratchers, those who do tattoos at home.
They’ve already done the kind of outreach the health department officials say it does or would like to do, visiting hospitals to talk to emergency room doctors about how to remove piercings and appearing in the American Journal of Nursing on care for piercings. Ellis said newspaper stories have been a primary method of outreach for the health department’s body art program.
“Definitely the health department needs to be sure people are set up, go over what would be expected from an environmental standpoint for business setup,” Wolfstar says.
But she adds that body artists could form a coalition that would educate itself on training they now have to pay for in Denver, like preventing blood borne pathogen training, and could produce more public service announcements to educate the public. They would identify themselves to the public with a decal on the door, and perhaps use secret handshakes or code rings to identify themselves to one another, she says.
Ellis says she doesn’t think ending inspections is a good idea. With every inspection, she says, she finds something out of compliance.
“I think if you license somebody and you’re saying we approved that facility to operate, there’s a certain expectation behind it that it’s being maintained,” she says.