Street tattooing: Illegal and potentially deadly

Editor's Note: "Amy" and "Jennifer" are fictitious names created to protect the identity of those involved.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - Jennifer doesn't sleep anymore.

Instead she spends the night making bargains with God and wondering if her decision to get a street tattoo will kill her.

She is one of at least eight South Tahoe High School students who may have been exposed to Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV through illegal tattooing.

"I wake up at 3 a.m. every morning, wondering what's going to happen to me and if I'm going to live or die," Jennifer said.

Robert Iida, a 40-year-old parolee known as "Tattoo Bobby," reportedly violated his parole by giving illegal "street" tattoos to minors, including Jennifer.

"It has been brought to our attention that several South Tahoe High School students may have been exposed to blood-borne pathogens, i.e. Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV," STHS Principal Karen Ellis wrote in a March 1 letter to parents.

School Resource Officer Scott Heng said tattooing minors is illegal, even for licensed tattoo artists.

"I had been hearing for quite awhile that there was someone in the community tattooing people under the age of 18," said Heng, who investigated Iida. "It is totally against the law, even with parental permission."

Jennifer's friend Amy, also tattooed by Iida, said he often attended high school parties.

"We met him at a party," Amy said. "We were all going to get tattoos that night, but Bobby was too drunk to do it so we got them the next day at our friend's house.

"He had just gotten out of jail and was doing tattoos for money, or you could trade him something."

Jennifer said Iida charged her and a friend a total of $10 to tattoo them both.

According to Public Health Nurse Allyson Tabor, repeat use of needles is a major concern.

"If (minors) were given tattoos by (Iida) there is no way of knowing if the needles were already used," Tabor said. "Since it was a street tattooist, he probably doesn't sterilize the needles."

If this is the case, students are not only in danger of possible exposure from Iida himself, but also from other people who were given tattoos.

"I watched him clean the needle with rubbing alcohol," said Jennifer, who got her tattoo on the same morning as five friends. "But he did all our tattoos one after another (with the same needle)."

Even high school students not directly involved with Tattoo Bobby said street tattooing is common.

"We'll go to a party and like six guys will get it done," one student said. "My friend does tattoos."

Amy said at least half of the students she knows with tattoos had them done "under the table."

But most students said they're willing to wait until they're 18 and get a tattoo in a "real tattoo parlor."

"I'd rather just spend more money to get a nice one than get a nasty one," another student said.

Amy, now regretful of her tattoo and also fearful for her health, wishes she had waited.

"I made a mistake," she said. "I shouldn't have gotten it and now it's all I think about."

The school district and the El Dorado County Public Health Department recommend that any student concerned that an exposure has occurred contact their family physician or the health department immediately and request an evaluation for blood-borne pathogen exposure, including Hepatitis B, which can be prevented by vaccination.

Lake Tahoe Unified School District Superintendent Rich Alexander said the high school has taken all of the appropriate steps to notify parents and students about what's going on.

"We've notified parents and students about the potential dangers related to this," Alexander said. "We just want to keep parents informed. We feel we have a real responsibility to the students."


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