The Investigators: Scratchers

(WMC TV) - The cardboard sign right off the Ridgeway Road exit of Bill Morris Parkway advertised "$10 Tattoos" with a phone number.

The ad on CraigsList ( offered tattoos along with auto repair. No phone number this time. No address either.

Health regulators said both are tell-tale signs of "scratchers," slang for tattoo artists or apprentices operating without state permits.

"These people are highly (transient)," said Otho Sawyer, assistant manager of the Memphis-Shelby County health department's Bureau of Environmental Sanitation. "They move around a lot."

They make a lot of trouble for licensed tattoo artists like Jose "BigJay" Guzman of House of Ink Tattoo Shop, 2252 Frayser Blvd.

As required by Tennessee law, Guzman posts his establishment permit, his tattoo artist permit and his body-piercing permit in plain sight of his customers. Not one needle is used more than once. Each is disposed immediately in the same hazardous waste containers used by doctors' offices and hospitals.

Guzman's staff rinses, then wraps all tools -- forceps, grips, tubes and tips -- in anti-bacterial bags and bakes them in a $2-5,000 autoclave for four hours.

"I'm doing all the right things, spending all the money, and there are people out there who are doing shade-tree or kitchen-magician work," said Guzman.

Unlicensed, underground tattoo artists typically front their work and wares on Facebook, Craigslist or other social media. Phone numbers and addresses are usually missing, and that's by design.

That's how Micah "Inkmann" Blair's Facebook page was designed when The Action News 5 Investigators "friended" his page. State health records confirmed Blair is neither a licensed tattoo artist, nor a permitted apprentice.

Under hidden camera, on the record, Blair -- in his twenties or thirties -- said he performed his first tattoo when he was twelve.

"On one of my little friends," Blair said. "(With) an electric toothbrush. Pop the top off, and it moves just like a tattoo machine."

Blair said he takes the state's infection control exam every year. He said he was once a permitted apprentice, but he ended his legitimate practice when the artist who mentored him demanded a large sum of money to join his staff and ordered him to dispose of his autoclave and tools.

"Most artists that I have come across either will not take apprentices, or you have to pay the $5,000 to get in," said Blair. "When you make it all about the money and less about the art, or less about what you're actually doing, it discourages you."

Blair said he hasn't performed a tattoo in over a month. He admitted he does not use an autoclave to sanitize his tools, which are plastic, he said. Tennessee's tattoo law does allow licensed tattoo artists to use "single-use" disposable tools in lieu of an autoclave.

That's licensed tattoo artists.

Unlicensed ones, like Blair, are public health risks, according to Sawyer.

"It's like being operated on by an unlicensed doctor," Sawyer said. "There's potential for HIV. There's a potential for hepatitis B, staph infections, strep infections. You're putting your life in someone else's hands that's not qualified to perform surgery.

"We've been involved in cases where persons have obtained infections based on an artist performing a tattoo."

But Sawyer could neither produce pictures of those infections from case files, nor share the files or names of those patients due to privacy laws.

In Tennessee, it's a Class C misdemeanor (max. 30 days in jail/$50 fine) to perform tattoos without a license. The Action News 5 Investigators asked John Cameron, staff attorney for Shelby County's Environmental Court, to release records of tattoo artists prosecuted for operating without licenses.

He couldn't find any.

Even so, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam just signed into law a bill sponsored by Tennessee State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, (D) Memphis. The law makes it illegal for unlicensed tattoo artists to possess tattoo equipment with the intent to use it.

The amended law makes it a Class A misdemeanor (max. 11 months, 29 days in jail/$2,500 fine) to simply possess the equipment without a license.

Tennessee law also prohibits performing tattoos on people under 18. Minors above 16 may be tattooed only with a parent's or guardian's consent, and the parent or guardian must be present during the procedure with identification proving his or her connection to the minor.

"We have the authority to close unlicensed tattoo establishments down," said Sawyer. "What we need is an official complaint."

Sawyer encouraged people who are aware of an unlicensed tattoo establishment and/or artist to report the location and artist to their local health department. Be prepared to provide:

* Name(s) of Artist(s)

* Address

* Hours of Operation

* Suspicious Activity

* Name of Law Enforcement with Jurisdiction

Our undercover producers called the number on that sign on the side of Ridgeway Road. They also answered the Craigslist ad.

Although messages were left with either the voice mail or contacts of both leads, neither resulted in a return call for an appointment.

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