Faith Sterilizes, Right?

In a few days (just waiting back for a final set of questions) I’ll be posting an interview with Kamal Jeet Sharma about his tattoo studio in Ludhiana, Punjab and his efforts to professionalize tattooing in India. Mark from Everything and Nothing snapped this photo of some of Kamal’s typical “competition”, a street tattoo machine he saw in Northern India in the Himalayan foothills.


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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

40 thoughts on “Faith Sterilizes, Right?

  1. wow……urm…people pay money to be tattooed with such things?
    im amazed with indias history of body modding that things are so outdated

  2. You know, I’ve been wondering about something…people have been doing tattoos and piercings for thousands of years before the germ theory was even formulated. Do we know anything about mod-related infection rates from primitive times? Or in primitive societies existing in modern times? I can’t imagine that these traditions would have come into existence if the practices were associated with frequent illness.

    My point is not that sterility is unimportant. For a host of legal and moral reasons, since we know about viruses and bacteria, mod artists are obligated to ensure that their equipment and materials are free of pathogens. In developed and many developing countries, there’s an abundance of public information about bloodborne pathogens and it would be beyond irresponsible to ignore it.

    But we shouldn’t immediately assume that people in more remote areas are dumb for working under nonsterile conditions. I’ve seen multiple ModBlog entries involving white tourists getting traditional hand-poked tattoos with nonsterile equipment and the comments have been all along the lines of “awesome”. Suddenly this is stupid because the machine in this case is electrically powered?

  3. a very valid comment. i think i need you to help me write law essays! i can never summerise what i feel in anything remotley like that fluency of fashion.

  4. bad comment Xenobiologista.

    First, indeed the ancient people did not work sterile, but they worked clean – they had, even without knowledge, pretty good ideas about cleaning the tools to avoid big serious infections, and they also had quite efficient antibacterial plant preparations for aftercare.

    Second, AIDS is a new pest, this blood-bourne disease was first transmitted from apes to humans less than 100 years ago.

    Third Hepatitis probably was an issue, but people were dying from other deseases, and due to rapid aging, a hallmark of hard live faster, then they could from a long term chronical disease.

    Today AIDS eand Hepatitis are an issue, a deadly one. And while Baomboo sticks are usually replaced afte ruse, this machine will be reused again and again.

    My point is, that you do not have a lot of biochemical knowledge, and that it would suit better to stop spreading half-wrong and dangerous ideas.

    Indeed HYGIENICS and CLEAN work can do it without perfect sterility, as most of the real critical germs are killed.

    I would not thrust that thing. (And indeed I thrusted a self crafted, self desinfected sewing kit needle for piercigns and I would do so again).

  5. There’s a huge difference between deadly viral infections and deadly bacterial infections. A viral infection could kill off an entire generation but it’s very unlikely that a bacteria could do the same.

    And there’s a huge difference between ancient tribal marking techniques and KNOWING the risks as we do now.

    I’ve read that the lower body suits of some pacific island peoples were not only social rights of passage, but also to prove the physical strength by surviving the procedures. If survival is part of the test, the implication is that a certain number did not survive.

  6. The other difference is that in an indigenous setting (although not necessarily in THIS setting) far less people from a far tighter group would be getting tattooed, meaning the risk of spreading bloodborne pathogens would be far more localized, dramatically reducing the risk factors.

  7. I wonder that too, Xeno, when I see the indigenous tattooing pix. Those who’ve had these tattoos done, if you’re reading: how did you feel about those risks? Did you do anything to minimize them?

  8. Things like this are especially scary to see in countries like India, where the AIDs rate is already so high, and ever growing…

  9. “First, indeed the ancient people did not work sterile, but they worked clean ”

    Ancient people did a lot of really different things at different times: hunter-gatherers are very different from each other, and also very different from other kinds of people. Some of them were probably dirty, some where clean. For example, female circumsision is often preformed with a the same rock rock on many young girls: this causes infections. Over a long period of time with body modification, people would probably figure out, through trial and error, what heals and what doesn’t, but a lot of very damaging customs often get transmitted as well, as long as it doesn’t have a high death rate.

    Small-scale groups (hunter gatherers, peasent villiages) didn’t have to worry as much, as Shannon says, about sterilization. If only a few hundred people live in an area, and they only tattooed at adolecence, blood borne disease through (probably disposable) tatoo instruments is not going to be a big deal. Also, those sorts of culutres, traditionally there wern’t as many transmissible diseases because you need a large population to develop and maintain disease circulation.

    The point about people being modded for a long time is a good one: it contradicts some recieived wisdom like “you can only wear stainless steel jewlery permanently”, and “saran wrap is needed for proper tattoo healing”. But the epidimeological enviroment that we (everyone, including the remaining indigneous people who are not linked into larger networks) is such that we need to worry more about kinds of diseases that in the past may have died out. AIDS for one, may have been a very rare disease for some time, but was spread through unsterilized vaccination needles, among other things. Thus, for anyone living today, disposable or propery sterlized instruments are important, much more important than they would have been in the past.

  10. Man. I’ve spent a lot of time over in India (I have a condo in Gurgaon). It’d be tight to see some more tattoos over there!

  11. this reminds me of someone that I met from India, I worked at a jewelry counter for a family from Punjab and there was an older man– probably about 55 or 60–who always wandered around the mall where I was working. He noticed my tattoos and then he told me about his tattoo. He was tattooed at the age of 16 and just had his initials on his wrist. He said that tattoos were so unacceptable back in India at the time that he was tattooed that when he returned home with the tattoo his father and uncle beat him.

  12. “I’ve seen multiple ModBlog entries involving white tourists getting traditional hand-poked tattoos with nonsterile equipment and the comments have been all along the lines of “awesome”. Suddenly this is stupid because the machine in this case is electrically powered?”

    I’m mostly curious about this comment. In the cases regarding handpoked tattoos: are those environments controlled as far as sterility is concerned? Is equipment often reused? Are autoclaves found in those shops? And finally: are handpoked tattoo artists primarily shop artists or are they found working on the street as well?

  13. Just curious,
    how many have been infected with HIV/AIDS through tattooing?
    Anybody know?

  14. Wintermute ‘The point about people being modded for a long time is a good one: it contradicts some recieived wisdom like “you can only wear stainless steel jewlery permanently”, and “saran wrap is needed for proper tattoo healing”.’

    I disagree about the tattoos, if you compare nowadays decent tattoos to those of ancient people or people living in non-Western cultures you see the obvious difference in ‘quality’.

  15. I think sterility is definitely imprtant. I’ve seen things like this in Thailand, infact one person was tattoing on a little table similar to this in the middle of a crowded market place and it was raining quiteheavily with amud all over the place… I coudln’t help wondering how all the people getting tattooted there, with practically no shelter were OK with that.

    cardboardfrog, in desperate moment, I as well as many freind actaully payed a scratcher in horrible pretty bad circumstances to tattoo us, infact a freind of mine had an entire back piece done. We were stupid, very very stuoid and for a whle after wondered about the needles and equippment that we somehoe overlooked at the time. We all had some tests donelater, and I cannot tell you how releaved we were.

    We all had one thing in common though, shitty tattoos, skin that raises every once in a while, quite visibly you can feel teh entire pattern through a shirt years later and itches like hell. Also, a coupel of peopele had bad allergic reactions to the ink.

    My point is that people pay, for man reasons, some just don’t know better, some are just desperate and some just don’t care. However, I have a feeling most just simply want to believe that everything is going to be ok, and that the “artist” surely knows what he’s doing….

    Hopefully, people will care more as the popularity of tattoos rizes as well as the information out there.

  16. Stormchaser, JLo and Shannon hit the information right on the head.

    Ancient Tribal cultures and their natural bodies and immune systems were vastly different then they are today. For instance during the time of homo-sapiens first coming to the world, with Neanderthals,etc its suggested that a Neanderthal could severely injure himself and just not realize that it was serious…ie: fall and break a bone, and he wouldn’t feel it much like we would today.

    And like JLo said part of say the islanders getting tattoos was also a rite of passage in survival…if you live, you’re apart of the tribe. Much like how with the Spartans they claim if you were of inferior genetics, you were tossed away.

    The fact is AIDS, Hepatitis, MRSA and various other pathogens weren’t around and weren’t easily passed as they are today.

    As Shannon pointed out back in tribal culture days the mods were specifically done within that specific tribe and almost never were they done outside of the tribe…And since many tribes often engaged in incest nature (ie: small tribe keeping it all in the families), the issue of transmitting diseases was low.

    Now that places like India have IMMENSE populations and have people entering and leaving its country often, the concerns are just that much greater.

    also in terms of the handpoked tattoo concept…my information might be a bit sketchy on it but last I remember the more ancient approach was to make the implements for handpoking tattoos for each individual person and never re-use the same material…As to re-use it would carry over other peoples “spiritual mojo” thus by using something you made, or the shaman made for you, was specifically for YOUR rite of passage, spiritual journey,etc.

    And just like Vera said in area’s where Heptatis, AIDS, HIV are becoming greater problems due to sheer population size as well as the lack of public education/information on the subject…It just makes the matter worse…

    the machine pictured isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but its still pretty rough.

    I’ve rambled on long enough and now an aboriginal here in Darwin is playing a didgeridoo outside of the shop and its distracting me….lmao

    ps: I ain’t lyin about the didgeridoo, this is crazy! LMAO!

  17. well it looks bad..but i do think faith heals sometimes.. in fiji i did a piece with a homemade machine that run on 4 batteries (which demanded an assistant at all times to hold it together) and a cabin on the beach,which was NOT sterile.. and then including some spliffs and the 1 needle I have NO clue where came from.. but,everything went ok,so maybe I was stupid,but sometimes you take a risk because it means ALOT for you to do that piece! it was a very important and nice experience for me anyways.. but just use your own judgement people :)

  18. I agree with 8, I tried to comment with a light hearted veiw but then I had visions of me running to a hospital 30 minutes into a tatto with that gun, to recieve the *HEART treatment. *I think that’s what it was called.

  19. An important part of this is that on the whole, our socieity is much cleaner than that 1000s of years ago.

    While someone in an ancient tribe may have spread some form of blood-borne disease [in relation to the ancient practice of Body Modification], it wouldn’t matter too much because everyone would already die from a parasitic infection long before the blood borne one hit home.

  20. Yeah, tattooing was definitely a rite of passage (aka survival) especially in island cultures that were always at risk for overpopulation (which is also why island cultures tend to be more warlike – there’s a fixed amount of resources). The Maori would tattoo coming of age boys and deliberately smear it with filth in order to ensure only the strongest would survive. Just look at how badass they are today.

  21. I saw similar set ups in Sao Paulo when I visited a few years back, it was really quite an eye opener to actually view it first hand, I was going to take a photo but the dudes running it seemed a little hostile so I moved off.

  22. Nebel,
    I dunno, i didn’t use any saran wrap on my tatoo and it healed fine, didn’t even need a touch up…

    I really think that we have FAR too much contact with plastics.

    My real point is that there are MANY different ways to do things. Ways for us to do things, ways that indigenous people did (and are doing). Not all of them are great ideas.

  23. #19 Just curious,
    how many have been infected with HIV/AIDS through tattooing?
    Anybody know?

    “No one in the USA has ever reported contracting HIV from a tattoo parlor.”

    I looked it up

  24. the only thing that disturbs me is that the machine looks rusty to me.i really don’t see how using the equipment-shown above- is any worse than doing hand-poked tattoos, without gloves, and while smoking cigarettes.

  25. @29

    I don’t think it’s possible to trace the source of the HIV virus if you have it. Incubation time can be up to 10 years, and in order to compare the specific strain of the virus you’d need the needles that you were tattooed with, which I hope would be thrown away after 10 years.

  26. o0o iv seen some pretty hardcore machines like that here in minnesota :( never good.

  27. I just have to say this. Wintermute suggested that female circumcision is something seen in ancient hunter/gatherer tribes. But this practice isn’t seen in hunter/gatherers. It’s seen in modern Muslim tribes, not ancient hunter/gatherers.

    I’m not suggesting that it didn’t ever occur, just that it isn’t seen.

  28. Just as Nebel said you can’t really test and the test come up saying: “You received HIV or AIDS at (insert tattoo studio) on (provide date)” its kind of up to the infected to source it out and try to figure it out…

    Also just because it HASN’T been reported, doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

    I will say HIV or AIDS is MUCH harder to contract via a tattoo/piercing studio due to the fact that once these diseases leave the body and get into the oxygen enrinched environment, they die rather quickly…Where as a blood droplet the size of a pin top could infect large numbers of people for upwards of 60 days.

    Not saying you COULDN’T get HIV or AIDS from a tattoo, but it’s a lot harder then Hepatitis, MRSA,etc.

  29. I didn’t mean to imply that hunter/gatherers practice female cirumcision, I’m aware it is usually Muslim/african peoples. Some of those people live in ‘tribal’ groups, although they generally are based on herding or small-scale farming, and they would an epidimiogy different from cities, although equally distinct from band-level hunter/gatherers. I was trying to show that unsterile and dangerous practices sometimes take hold in traditional socieites as well.

  30. Just in case anyone is curious, the scrawl on the table towards the top of the photo says: naak-kaan bhi chhede jate hain i.e. Noses and ears can be pierced here as well.

  31. On a completely unrelated design note, I love those drawings. There are like crude counterparts of common modern tattoos.. truly inspiring in lieu of drawings once special to Asian, specifically Japanese, culture that have now been Americanized in prominence and detail. Just fucking awesome!!!

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