MODESTO — Bradford Santiago of Modesto paid an artist last month to tattoo flames and demon hair on his upper arm.
Before long, he said, his arm was inflamed with a serious staph infection. Santiago said he agonized through eight days of treatment at Doctors Medical Center before being released Monday. He continues to battle the infection at home.
“I almost lost my arm,” said Santiago, 48. “The whole thing was filled with pus.”
This kind of infection was one reason for a state law, effective July 1, 2012, that requires tattoo and body-piercing studios to comply with safety and sanitation guidelines. Stanislaus County is responsible for regulating local studios and is investigating Santiago’s complaint.
Santiago charges that an unregistered tattoo artist at Think Ink Studio on Standiford Avenue used non-sterile instruments, causing the infection. The artist, named Sam Luy or “Kaze,” said his instruments were clean. Luy said he’s done the same techniques for five or six years without infecting customers.
Santiago said he booked an appointment with Luy because the artist specializes in Japanese-style tattoos. He never had trouble with previous tattoos done by other artists, but things didn’t go well this time.
It felt like a hot iron was searing his arm soon after he returned home, Santiago said. In time, the pain and swelling drove Santiago to the emergency room at Doctors. He was sent home with antibiotics, but he returned about 36 hours later in a delirious state and was promptly admitted, he said.
Santiago said pus, combined with black, green and purple fluid, oozed from his severely swollen arm. Nurses fed potent antibiotics through a catheter to keep the infection from spreading in his bloodstream.
Santiago said Wednesday that he was still in pain and needed additional medical care. He was upset the county had not stopped Luy from working as an artist.
“That is ridiculous,” he said. “That guy needs to stop tattooing.”
Jami Aggers, county environmental services director, said staff determined during a recent inspection at Think Ink Studio that Luy was not registered with the county. The county required Luy to register as an artist, and rather than paying the normal $95 fee, the studio was assessed a $500 penalty. Luy also needs a hepatitis B vaccination.
Aggers said no other safety violations were discovered at the studio. She said the county would not shut down a studio or artist for a single case of infection because of the difficulty of proving the cause.
Luy and studio owner Peter Forystek concede that Santiago’s tattoo became infected but said many people have the staphylococcus bacteria on their skin. Forystek showed the stainless steel grips and tubes used at Think Ink Studio and a sterilizer that cleans instruments.
Forystek, who opened the studio in April 2010, stressed that tattoo needles are tossed in a disposal container after one-time use.
“Every time I tattoo, I take the needle (from its package) in front of the client,” Luy said. “I’m wearing gloves. I don’t reuse needles.”
Luy said it was his fault he didn’t register with the county even though Forystek informed him about the law. He has completed bloodborne pathogen training. The artist said he refunded $200 to Santiago when the client complained about the infection.
Santiago has posted comments about his bad experience on Internet sites and declined further comment after talking with an attorney.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are health risks associated with tattoos or body piercing, including skin infections and bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis and tetanus. The studio and artist guidelines in the state’s Safe Body Art Act were developed to minimize the risks for clients.
David Irizarry of Foundation Tattoo in Modesto said infections can result from unsafe techniques or instruments that haven’t been sterilized. To prevent infection, clients also need to follow the instructions for cleaning and caring for a new tattoo, he said.
Aggers said the county has not received reports of illness connected with other body art studios since it began enforcing the state law. Inspectors have documented many violations for structural items such as unsealed surfaces or missing sinks, because the studios never had been inspected before the law, the director said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.