Bill Herring rolls up his sleeve to show off his new tattoo, only not for the reason you might expect.
Embedded in the gray and black design are two pink marks, the results of an biopsy, required after he developed a nasty skin infection. “It was just bumps. Bumps all over the skin where the ink was applied,” he says. “It didn’t hurt, it didn’t itch, it was just bumps."
Those bumps turned out to be a potentially dangerous bacteria infection resistant to antibiotics.
For several months this year, Rochester was at the center of a nationwide mystery involving the skin illness in people who recently received tattoos.
The New England Journal of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Monroe County Health Department all worked together to isolate the source of the infection which impacted 19 people here and another 50 across the country.
“This (infection) showed up within a week, it was unusual in that the whole tattoo wasn’t inflamed,” says Herring. All 19 people used the same Tattoo Parlor-Upstate Tattoo on South Clinton Avenue.
Bill Herring and his brother Jamie are the owners and quickly identified other clients with the same problem. “I know many of these people by name and I know what they’re going through because I went through it myself,” says Bill.
“It takes months to eradicate this infection with the right medicine,” says Dr. Byron Kennedy of the Monroe County Health Department. Untreated the infection could spread to vital organs.
Dr. Kennedy says while the 19 people were being treated, doctors set out to settle the mystery of the cause. For that they turned to DNA-matching the makeup of the biopsies with opened and unopened bottles of ink.
“We can say with a certain amount of confidence that ink was contaminated before it was opened and used on patients in Rochester,” says Dr. Kennedy.
The ink is called Catfish Carl’s Realistic Washes. It has been voluntarily recalled. “When somebody puts a product out there they say is reputable you believe that,” says Bill Herring.
The company is at the center of a class action lawsuit. However tattoo inks are not regulated by the Federal Government so there is no way to know if they meet minimum safety guidelines.
Some in the industry say it’s time to change that. “It’s a common sense issue, not just a tattoo issue,” says Herring. “If you’re putting your product into someone’s body absolutely they should regulate it.”