Horror scars, festering wounds & deadly infections – brutal toll of illegal tattoo 'scratchers' targeting underage kids

OOZING wounds, lumpy scars and arms hooked up to hospital drips – this is the grim picture illicit tattoo artists don't want to paint.

Yet over recent years, a rising number of Brits have fallen victim to 'scratchers' -unregistered, unqualified tattooists offering up their dodgy services in exchange for quick cash.

Horrified customers have told The Sun of their devastation after being lured in by untrained opportunists and shared stomach-churning pictures of the red, blistering designs left in their wake.

But health professionals warn this is far from the worst problem, with shocking health and safety lapses running the risk of dangerous diseases like hepatitis and, in rare cases, HIV.

By law, you must be over-18 to get a tattoo, and professionals dishing them outmust be licensed and registered.

However, chancers have jumped on the easy availability of online kits to offer up their services illegally to underage kids who are too young to visit legitimate studios.

One such product from Amazon was delivered to our reporter's door in less than a day – with no checks or explanation of vital safety guidance.

'Docs feared infection would reach my heart'

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The most recent statistics available show that a fifth of all British adults are inked, with 30 per cent of 25 to 39-year-olds having at least one tattoo.

Emma, from Swindon, was one of those who unsuspectingly did it through a scratcher after being offered the chance of a brand new tatt for just £10.

She tells The Sun how after being put in contact, she was sat down not at a studio, but at a mate's kitchen table, surrounded by bottles of booze while an untrained woman claiming to be a tattoo artist inked her neck.

After seeing the result in a mirror, the 48-year-old burst into tears – so repulsed by the botched job that her first instinct was to get a piece of sandpaper and try to sand it off.

"Tattoos are quite expensive, so I jumped at the chance to get one for a good price at a friend's house," Emma says.

"The design was supposed to be initials and an exclamation mark, but when I saw it for the first time I was devastated – it looked like it spelt the word 'heel'.

"I cried my eyes out. I regret it so much and hate it – I feel so self-conscious and silly.

"I found out later she wasn't qualified – I just didn't think for one second anyone would tattoo someone else if they didn't know what they were doing."

Tattooists must be licensed and registered with the council, so that their hygiene and safety standards can be property inspected.

They are also required to carry out their work at a registered premises – but those doing it at home go largely unchecked.

One example of just how badly wrong it can go is Nancy Anderson, who was left with permanent scars after the ink gave her a festering hole in her wrist.

The then 20-year-old couldn't get an appointment at her favourite high street studio and her friends encouraged her to message a man who tattooed clients in his house.

Nancy, from Wickford, Essex, described the pain as "excruciating" and knew something was wrong when the so-called artist did not wrap the ink with cling film – a key part of the tattooing process to avoid infection.

After calling her GP she went straight to hospital where she was told she had a serious life-threatening infection which needed urgent treatment including six antibiotic drips.

She recalled: "They said my arm was infected and they needed to stop it reaching my heart.

"Where my hand was so swollen, I was told it was stopping my blood circulating and I had to be kept in overnight."

She explained that the unlicensed inking took five hours – much longer than normal – and the fresh design wasn't covered in cling film, unlike the legitimate jobs she'd had previously.

She said: "It's not worth the risk just to save some money.

"I've been left with permanent scars and I don't think any professional will be able to fix it."

£50 kits with no age restrictions

Given just how dangerous it can be, it's shocking that even children are able to get their hands on a tattoo kit, which can be legally bought online.

A quick search online shows just how easily accessible tattoo equipment is, with our reporter buying a £50 kit in seconds which was delivered within 24 hours – no questions asked.

The kit we purchased features a tattoo gun, needles, fake skins to practise on and 14 coloured inks, which it notes in the description are "not to be used on the human body" – although it doesn't say why.

It also features a basic booklet, which describes the kit as "professional" and shows how to put it together, but doesn't explain essential safety guidance, like how to dispose of used needles.

Parvinder Sagoo, pharmacist and lead medical advisor for Simply Meds Online, told The Sun: "Illegal tattoo artists have rapidly increased in the last 10 years due to tattoo equipment being more widely available and cheaper to buy both online and in store.

"This is a cause for concern as this means that many people can pose as a tattoo artist when they have no training and may be using unsterilised or faulty equipment.

"The main dangers are that unsterilised equipment can seriously increase the risk of spreading diseases such as hepatitis or HIV, as well as causing permanent scarring.

"If you have had a tattoo you're concerned about, you may want to speak to your GP or book a blood test to ensure that you have not been infected due to unsterilised equipment."

'All my friends had tattoo needles – it's scary how easy it was'

So why do people take such risks to get inked?

For many it's due to cost, or they want to get one before they turn 18.

Amy, 22, from London, got her first illegal tattoo when she was 16, and now has ten – the majority of which have been done at home, by friends or by herself.

She says: "Tattoos are so expensive, and when I wanted to get my first one I was underage, so the only way I could get one was if one of my friends did it.

"To be honest, most of my friends growing up had tattoo needles at home, just bought online, and we'd all get tattoos from each other.

"There's also a culture around stick and poke tattoos too – they're not supposed to look like they're done in the studio.

"It's scary in a way – looking back I do think, how were we allowed to get our hands on the equipment so young? You could get a tattoo gun for a tenner delivered to your door the next day, no matter how old you were.

"If I think of my little brother now buying something like that I'd be horrified."

The law says you can tattoo yourself, but tattooing others must be supervised by a licensed premises, and both tattooist and client must be over the age of 18. 

Amy says: "I did the first one on myself during lockdown. It had been a while since I'd last had one, I'd had the needles for years and just never used them.

"I did a piece of barbed wire on my ankle, but that one actually did get infected.

"It formed into a blister and started oozing puss, and I needed a course of antibiotics to clear it up.

"Now it doesn't look how it was supposed to because it's scabbed and not healed properly in the middle, causing permanent scarring."

'It's a status thing – scratchers open studios in gardens'

Chantale Coady-McCombs, 43, has been a registered tattooist for over 14 years and specialises in cover-ups.

She says: "I've seen a huge rise in the amount of scratchers that are opening up their own studios, in their garden shed.

"It's a status thing now, it's seen as a cool thing to do, but they don't know what they're doing.

"Social media has really contributed to this too. What a lot of people don't realise is some tattooists photoshop their work – so a lot of what you see isn't the reality."

Chantale believes there needs to be more regulations implemented to discourage amateur scratchers.

She says: "There are so many restrictions on studios, but there's no restrictions on people just buying a kit and doing it at home.

What a lot of people don't realise is some tattooists photoshop their work – so a lot of what you see isn't the reality

"I specialise in cover-ups so I always see people who've done their own. We actually get scratchers come in to get tattoos and they show off what they've done on themselves at home. It's often line work, outlines or names.

"The ink they use – I wouldn't use it to paint with, let alone put it to someone's skin. It's horrendous, and often part of these kits.

"People don't always think about it. Even getting laser removal – you can't remove a scar."

Cllr Nesil Caliskan, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, says: “Councils work hard to ensure safety at premises registered in their areas, and to tackle unregistered premises. 

"All councils should be given the robust powers they need to license businesses undertaking these types of procedures so that they can properly protect the public.         

“Anyone getting a tattoo should make sure they check both the premises and tattooist is registered with their local council"

The Sun has contacted Amazon for comment.

How to spot an illegal scratcher

  • Check that the tattoo studio is registered with the local council. You can ask to see its registration certificate, or look online on the council database.
  • Check that the tattoo artist has recognised training and qualifications – often these are displayed on the wall of a studio, but if in doubt, ask.
  • Ensure that you read and sign a medical consent form.
  • Check out the reviews for the studio online on a variety of platforms – don't just go by Instagram.
  • Check that the artist uses brand new tattoo needles from a sealed package.
  • Check that the artist is using proper tattoo ink that has been been sterilised.
  • Ensure the tattoo artist washes their hands and puts on a new pair of medical-type gloves before they ink you.
  • Ensure you are given advice on aftercare for your tattoo, and that it is cling-wrapped.

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