Traditionally an autoclave sterilizer was considered to be indispensable piece of equipment that every reputable tattoo studio owned. Tattooists and piercers (or their apprentices) would spend many an hour soaking, scrubbing and cleaning their tools, prepping them to be bagged for the autoclave. Our sterilizers would then run their cycle, making our tools safe for use on the next client. Over the last 20 years a vast array of products adapted from the medical and dental industries have been introduced to our industry to augment and improve the cleaning regiment. Other tattoo savvy products have also sprung up to help us clean more safely and efficiently. To present even more options, many pre-sterile, single use, individually packaged products can now be added to our arsenal. Tattooers and piercers today are presented with an almost dizzying variety of tools for their trade.
When looking for a tattoo shop to patronize, some of our potential clients have been instructed by friends and family to ask to see the studio autoclave. Most of the “what to look for in a tattoo studio” or “things to consider before visiting a tattoo shop” articles recommend that the client ask to see the sterilization equipment. Until recently, every respectable shop had one. This idea has been widely challenged within the last 10 to 15 years. Specifically, in the last 5 years, we have seen a minority of studios dumping the ‘clave and going all sterile. Many shops now boast “completely disposable equipment” in their advertisements. We have seen a shift from the traditional popular opinion for some tattooers away from the traditional sterilization model. I wanted to explore some of the pros and cons of both sides of this argument.
A Stitch in Time
I sat down to write out some arguable points for both sides of this debate, and the first thing I scribbled was “saving time”. One major advantage of pre-sterilized tattoo equipment would certainly be more time to work. I think any successful shop (or any business for that matter) would agree time is money. Tattoos are often priced based on the amount of time the client will need to sit. If a busy artist spends 3 hours a week cleaning his equipment, and charged $100 per hour for tattoos, he or she would stand to earn an additional $300 a week by doing away with scrubbing, prepping, bagging and claving tools. More free time may yield more appointments. Even if that time was not dedicated to more tattooing, it would mean more time to clean the shop, help customers, prep artwork, or peruse Facebook (for the less ambitious). However the time was spent, most would agree that prepping tools for the ‘clave is not the best way to spend a Friday night.
The second pro for an all disposable setup would be savvier presentation. An all disposable shop would have less clutter. Cut out the ‘clave, and you cut out ultrasonics buzzing, dirty grips soaking, tubs or containers of tools waiting in piles, ‘claves needing cleaned, stacks of sterilization pouches, spore test strips, cleaning brushes, and the like. If you use a chemi-clave, you no longer need the chemicals. We can eliminate ‘clave cleaners, alconox, and whatever cleaner you prefer for scrubbing your grips. We also have now created a shop with less movement. No more running to the ‘clave room to get the right setup out of the last batch. Not only have you tidied up the shop and calmed it down, you have also lost the above expenses. Any successful business model will show that less cost means more profit.
This brings us to price. Traditional steel and nylon grips are reusable. Proper cleaning and the occasional replacement thumb screw, and a quality grip can last a long time. Traditional steel grip, tip, and tube combos average around $15 from most suppliers. Disposable combos run $.75 to $1 each on average. Switching from steel to pre-sterile would equate to buying a new steel setup every 12 to 15 sessions. Most artists think about the enormous added expense going disposable would likely bring. What most of us have not considered is how we would save more in other areas. For example, no sterile pouches, alconox, ‘clave cleaner, monthly spore test, and scrubbing cleanser. Gloves used during cleaning are not gone, no more tube brushes, gaskets and clave seals no longer need replaced. At our shops we take our ‘claves in for an annual checkup, which runs are $250 per ‘clave. Like a car inspection, our ‘clave is looked over to make sure everything is functioning properly. Add all these costs in with the amount of time per week spent cleaning, prepping, and sorting gear, and it is arguable that the increased costs of pre-sterile combos would be offset by the associated savings.
Hug a Tree
Many advocates of traditional sterilization cite the added waste associated with disposable grips. Bulky combos would fill up sharps containers and trash cans, causing more harm than good to the eco-system. I spoke with local recycling companies and was told that if properly organized and disinfected, plastic combos could be placed in recycling containers alongside water bottles and soda containers. The recycling process would insure than any contaminant would be more than eliminated, and the testing performed during the process is designed to catch and eliminate any anomalies. Whether pre-sterile or traditional, pouches are an unavoidable waste in the tattooing process. However the EO gas process that is popularly used with the plastic pre-combo does allow for smaller packaging than we often see used with traditional grips, so the waste may be a bit less for pre-sterile setups.
“If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself!”
One of the strongest arguments against the use of pre-sterile tools is sterilization integrity. When using a pre-sterile item, we are left to only trust that our supplier is using a safe and sound process. Certainly no reputable supplier would conscientiously mislabel or cheat the sterilization process, but as an end user we ultimately have no way of guaranteeing the validity of the product without re-sterilizing. And that would completely defeat the purpose of buying pre-sterile. The only way to be sure an item was properly sterilized would be to be present for the entire process. However, as a reseller that has sold hundreds of thousands of pre-sterile grip and tip combos, needles, and tools, I feel more than confident in our line of sterile items. We use these products daily in our shop and sell them to shops all over the world.
“The Times They Are a Changin”
Traditional tattoo apprenticeships often involve the idea of paying your dues and showing respect to the tattoo industry. In some professional tattooers eyes, this means cleaning a lot of sh*t! If a shop were all sterile, would the impact of the apprenticeship on the student change? Some argue that by losing the autoclave we are also losing sight of part of the history of tattooing, and thereby undermining the integrity of the industry.
While it is certainly becoming a lost art as the years pass, there are still many tattooers who are jigging their own needles, mixing their own pigment, and the like. As more time passes these tattoo secrets may ultimately become lost in the myriad of pre-sterile, ready-made, mass produced products. Whereas 20 years ago a studio without an autoclave would be something to scorn, sterilization improvements have made the idea almost cutting edge. It is my personal opinion that the tattoo industry has been poised on a defining threshold for the last 15 years, a kind of industry revolution. Improvements in design, manufacture, and application have changed the industry dramatically. Some may say for better, others for worse but it is certainly an exciting time for tattooing. I, for one, am anxious to see what the future holds.
This debate ends with the same answer as many others in our industry. Tattooing and piercing are at their purest interpretive art-forms. There are many different brushes and paints that can yield beautiful results. The right tool is decided by the artist. No one tool works best for all artists. I think that whatever makes the tattooer feel most comfortable in delivering a quality piece of work is the best choice.
Paul Sorrels, CEO
717 Tattoo & Body Piercing Studios – Two locations in Central PA – online at www.717tattoo.com
Razorblade Products, Inc – Tattoo, Piercing, & Medical Supplies by Professionals for Professionals, online at www.RazorbladeProducts.com
www.PATattooLaw.com – Organizing the Pennsylvania tattoo & piercing community to lobby for much needed industry legislation for the commonwealth of PA – coming soon