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What the Discount Tattoo HIV Scare Says About Alberta’s Health Regulations

Even when the artist is at fault, authorities still don't quite get it.

by Allison Tierney
Feb 10 2016, 10:08pm


Ryan Kinsella, a tattoo artist working from his home in Calgary whose Instagram is pictured above, had his tattooing operation shut down last week. Screenshot via Instagram

A Calgary tattoo artist operating out of his home was shut down last week by Alberta Health Services due to unsanitary practices. In the days following, many media outlets across Canada published stories with headlines urging his clients to get tested for HIV and various forms of hepatitis.

However, the owner of the operation in question, Ryan Kinsella of Discount Tattoo, says he believes no one he tattooed was infected. "This thing is blown way out of proportion [by the media]... It was supposed to be a private thing for informed people. No one got sick, not a chance," Kinsella told VICE.

Dr. Judy MacDonald, medical officer of health with the Calgary zone of Alberta Health Services, said that she could not say if there have been any confirmed cases of diseases from Kinsella's operation due to it being confidential health information. However, she said, when tattoo artists are shut down with an order of closure like Kinsella was, it is standard for Alberta Health Services to urge clients to get tested regardless of whether or not there has been a confirmed infection.

"Whenever we have a situation like this where there's a tattoo operator who's performing services in an unsanitary manner, we do recommend that people who have been using those services be tested for bloodborne viruses like HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C," MacDonald said. "That's just our standard response, so that's what we offered to people who may have used his services... that's underway now."

Yesterday, Kinsella, who works as an ironworker in addition to tattooing as a "hobby," posted a YouTube video (which has since been taken down) that showed his operation and detailed his sterilization techniques that have been called into question by Alberta Health Services. "I have been fined for operating without a licence, not for giving people HIV, not for giving people Hep C or Hep B, or you know, ruining people's lives," Kinsella said in the video.

Kinsella was advertising his homegrown shop Discount Tattoos—which is probably not the best name if you are trying not to sound sus—on Kijiji and via flyers around Calgary.

Lexci Johnston, who has been managing tattoo studios for the last 15 years and is part of Health Educators, a body modification, industry-specific company that offers relevant training in bloodborne pathogens and infection control, was disturbed by the video Kinsella posted and plans to post her own video in response. "It's actually coming from a very ignorant place because he doesn't have the training to use his equipment properly," Johnston said.

Kinsella tattoos a client on a fabric surface bare-handed. Photo via Facebook

Johnston went on to explain that even within the video itself, Kinsella unknowingly demonstrated that he was not aware of how to properly handle equipment and sanitation, pointing out one part in which he shook a biohazard container of used needles.

In the order of closure that Kinsella was issued officially on February 2, Alberta Health Services detailed 15 violations. Of these, several brought up Kinsella's use of a stainless steel needle tube that was being reused, had rust on the outside, and contained stains on the inside—a piece of equipment he has claimed he was only using on himself to save money. Needle tubes are a piece of equipment used in machine tattooing that come in either disposable or reusable forms; however, for the latter, strict, meticulous sterilization is required for safe usage. Kinsella handed over a list of clients to Alberta Health Services, but according to MacDonald, this list contained less than five names.

While Johnston was critical of what she saw in Kinsella's video, she is generally unimpressed with the way authorities in the province respond to instances where people are tattooing in subpar conditions. "It's a double-edged sword for our industry when—it happens every few months—Alberta Health Services will issue a media statement to say that everyone who got tattooed at a certain place should get tested for HIV," Johnston said. "It reflects very badly on our industry as a whole, and we do feel the sting and backlash from the public."

Johnston is concerned that the health board is not strict enough when it comes to regulating tattooing. Though they have rules about the conditions in which people can conduct tattooing that are enforced via Alberta Health Services, there is not a licensing procedure that comes from the health board for individual tattoo artists, though some municipalities within the province provide licensing.

"The minimum standard is way too low... it's shocking when you see people operating this low below the regulations," she said.

Kinsella's tattoo operation was the first shut down in 2016 in Calgary, but last year, there weren't any tattoo operations shut down in the city. In 2014, three were closed down, and in 2013, two.

Kinsella told VICE yesterday that he will continue to tattoo himself, but will wait to tattoo others until he is cleared by Alberta Health Services. He has since deleted his YouTube video.

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