Believe me, beyond the artful ink are many stories of work that went awry. Picture: AP

Washington - The barista had at least six tattoos ranging in size from a small rose on the inside of his wrist to a half-sleeve depicting a landscape scene.

When I asked about them, he smiled and told me each one had a special meaning. Then he rolled up his sleeve to show a disfigured area of skin from an infection on one tattoo on his shoulder. His only regret was not talking with someone knowledgeable about the process - beforehand.

Sometimes complications from body modifications can be severe and permanent. I know. Because in my healthcare practice, teens often talk about body modifications but don't ask questions about health safety, prevention or maintenance.

Believe me, beyond the artful ink are many stories of work that went awry.

As parents, caregivers and healthcare providers, frank conversations about tattoos can possibly pre-empt problems. Plan for at least a 30-minute conversation focusing on the topic of body modifications beginning with an open-ended question such as: What are your thoughts about tattoos?

Additionally, talking with your family's healthcare provider is important as he or she can be invaluable in identifying potential health risks such as history of keloid formation, sensitivities to inks or increased risk of tooth breakage with tongue piercings.

You can also discuss maintenance and care for tattoos and body modifications including cleaning and protection during sports activities. Be sure to have discussions about the implications of job placement and the care and maintenance of tattoos while at work.

These conversations before tattooing, piercing or scarification can all help decrease the risk of skin complications, ink allergies and infections.

More broadly, you will want to have a talk about the content of the tattoo. Is it a symbol, language or depiction that could be offensive to some and that may deter the teen from employment or other considerations? Are there religious belief considerations at play, or any cultural stigmas that may impact the person's life in a larger way?

Ask your teen to consider placement of the tattoo or body modification and understand if it is in an area of the body that is sensitive or susceptible to infection or other health concerns. For example, tongue or mouth piercings can make it difficult to talk, chew or swallow. These can damage the tongue, gums or fillings and make it hard for your dentist to take tooth X-rays. The piercings can also lead to gum disease, uncontrolled bleeding, long-term infection and even death if complications are not managed properly.

If your teen is still set on a tattoo, finding safer inking involves some investigative work. Find a tattoo parlour that is licensed and ask about the length of experience of the tattoo artist. 

Once at the studio, whether you accompany the teen or not, advise him or her to be sure the artist offers single use or "throw away" kits for individual use. Watch the artist open the kit and remove the new needle and tubing while wearing gloves and using disposable towels. Be sure the artist washes his or her hands.

Notice if the tattoo room is clean. See if there are red "sharps containers" visible. If not, ask how the artist disposes of the needle. Ask about the ink used and what it's made of. Ask if the tattoo artist has used this ink personally and on others. It's best if the ink is organic, non-metallic and comes from a large, well-known manufacturer with a long business history. A good sign is if the artist uses that ink on himself or herself.

Before sitting for the tattoo, look closely at the tattoo artist's portfolio to see if there is a wide variety of work: Colour, black and grey, traditional, realism or if it is small, common pieces. Observe what the skin looks like in the photo. Is it red or irritated or does it appears to have close attention to detail?

A really good tattoo artist will welcome questions. If a customer is not satisfied with any of the answers to these questions, don't ink, walk.
Do the research. And when this conversation with your teen happens, tell them to take 24 hours to contemplate the repercussions before making this decision.

Acquiring a tattoo, body piercing or scarification should not be made on impulse. Tattoos and other body modifications can be a positive ornamental expression of identity and beliefs. They should also be safe.

The Washington Post