A frog and a palm tree that he once wore on his right arm have since been covered. Some of Van Cleve’s other tattoos, including a parrot and a sunset, also were reworked to conceal the original artwork.
For him, the designs serve as permanent reminders of tattoo parties he attended in Florida about a decade ago.
“They’re all covered up but two, and those are going to be covered up soon,” said Van Cleve, who is days away from opening his own shop, The Asylum Tattoos and Body Piercing, on Wrightsboro Road.
Tattoo parties, which Van Cleve refers to as “practice parties,” are just as they sound. A tattoo artist, who might not be licensed, provides body art without regulation and sanitary supervision at parties that often occur inside homes or hotel rooms.
They’re also illegal.
“People are smoking and drinking,” Van Cleve said. “It’s not a good idea at all. In a shop, it’s regulated. You’re not spreading hepatitis. You’re not spreading HIV.”
The prevalence of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, coupled with easy online access for purchasing the necessary equipment and supplies, is making the trend more popular, according to Richmond County health officials and local tattoo artists.
“It’s a lot more frequent now then it used to be,” said Kenny McGee, a co-owner of Aces and Eights Tattoo in Augusta. “We constantly fix tattoos from home parties or a buddy doing it at the house. You also occasionally get people coming in trying to buy equipment from you.”
Chris French, the owner of Lucky 7 Tattoo, said he is frequently approached in his downtown shop to provide tattoo services at a birthday party or other social gatherings. As a licensed artist, French is allowed to operate only at his parlor, and he said he would never risk his reputation or livelihood by breaking the law.
French doesn’t see the illegal parties as a deterrent to business. If anything, he said, it provides job security because many people, like Van Cleve, are unhappy with the final result.
Party-goers should be more concerned about the obvious health risks at such events, said JeWayne Dorsey, an environmental health specialist at the Richmond County Health Department.
“Whoever is performing these services, they’re performing them without the proper sterilization techniques, and they may not even be knowledgeable themselves of what they’re doing,” Dorsey said. “A lot of people get into it because they think there’s a lot of money involved, so they skip the proper guidelines.”
The health department has recorded just a handful of tattoo party complaints since the county’s stricter body art ordinance went into affect in January 2012. So far, no one has been cited.
The penalty for operating without a license is a maximum of a $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail, at the discretion of a magistrate judge.
Randy Wishard, the county manager for environmental health, said he would encourage issuing a warning before giving out citiations.
“I honestly believe there’s a lot of ignorance there,” said Wishard, adding that tattoo parties often attract the underage crowd who can’t get work done legally at a permitted establishment without parental consent.
Wishard said his agency receives the bulk of complaints from licensed artists working in the industry, but the information typically comes well after a party is over.
“They can go out and knock on doors,” Wishard said. “That does little except to educate them. It does nothing in prevention.”
Dorsey said another issue they run into comes when a recipient of a bad tattoo goes to get the work fixed at a professional parlor but is reluctant to give away too much detail.
“They won’t say anything because it’s their friend, and they don’t want to rat them out,” he said. “That’s a problem for us also. Our hands are tied. What do we do now?”
Still, McGee says that more can be done to prevent the parties from occurring and that plain ignorance shouldn’t be excused.
“We have rules for a reason,” said McGee. He said he has called the health department several times to report such occurrences.
“If it’s going to be a level playing field, then it should be a level playing field for everybody,” he said. “It’s not going away because there are no consequences for it.”