Preparing Yourself for When Problems Arise
Last month, we were presented with a stark reminder of the risks involved with tattooing, when one of our own suffered severe from a severe infection after a routine session. We learned that even in the best of scenarios, problems can still arise. However, the final lesson was ultimately for the client, and that was that in these situations, one should never be so quick to blame his or her artist when infections arise. As tattooing has continually expanded from the margins of society into the overly populated realm of the “middle,” this industry has been all but forced to step up its game and (literally) clean up its act. As a result, infections through the negligence or error of the artist, while not impossible, are increasingly unlikely.
But that’s not total vindication. You still must exercise due diligence, every moment, every hour you’re on the job. And even if you could prove your innocence in a court of law, that’s barely half the battle. There’s still the court of public opinion, which can level a business far more quickly than any legal proceedings. Reputation is everything—and when it comes to the health and safety of your clientele, the old adage of “all press is good press” goes straight out the window. In this realm, any press that’s less than glowing can be a death sentence. Therefore, when a client you’ve recently tattooed walks through to door complaining of an infection, you can’t just brush it off and you sure as hell can’t wing it. A plan must already be in place.
There are two basic portions of a good plan: the ‘pre’ and the ‘post.’ That is, there’s the portion of the plan that prevents issues in the first place, i.e., the preparatory portion, and there is the portion dedicated to how to act when issues do arise, i.e., the initiation portion.
The ‘Pre’: How to Prepare
Be obsessively clean. This part is a no-brainer, but we can’t exactly discuss the topic at hand without addressing it. The short of it is you can’t cut any corners on cleanliness and sanitation. For the long of it, refer to our piece on clean room safety in Issue #[insert number], published October of 2018. The major takeaway from that article is that you can’t just abide by the minimum safety standards of your locality. You need to go over and above to the point where your workspace is cleaner than a hospital. Why? Simply put, because hospitals have the luxury of gargantuan insurance policies that will more than cover them in case of a disaster. They can arguably afford the mistakes; you can’t.
Know your sources. Considering the risks involved, you would think the FDA was closely monitoring the industry’s suppliers, especially the inks being injected into skin, but you’d be wrong. By their own admission, the agency is far too overstretched to do more than address problems as they come up. That means, as an artist, it’s incumbent upon you to do the research and properly vet your sources, insuring they’ve employed the proper sanitization protocols and are utilizing only the safest ingredients. And while the FDA might not be closely monitoring the industry, any supplier you deal with should still be operating in an FDA-compliant manner. That means producing out of a CGMP facility and employing lot and batch numbers for the purpose of traceability. That brings us to our next point . . .
Keep a log of everything. All of the previously mentioned actions we’ve touched on are essential, but they ultimately don’t mean shit if you don’t meticulously document their implementation. Think of it as high school algebra; you only get credit for a correct answer if you’ve shown you work. If you haven’t, there’s no way to go back and prove your method, or more importantly, no way to go back and find the mistake in the event of a problem. This also applies to your material. Every item you use, especially the ink, should have batch and lot numbers just like anything else within the FDA’s purview. In the event that a problem occurs, you need to be able to trace the materials all the way back to the location and date of production. Doing this not only covers your ass, but also instills confidence in your clients that you are employing the safety protocols necessary to keep them safe. Finally, always make sure they are there to witness when you open any of the prepackaged disposable items you might employ.
The ‘Post’: How to Act
Notice we didn’t say, “how to react.” That’s an important distinction. Reactions are just defensive jabs thrown blindly by the unprepared. Actions are the pre-conceived protocols ready to initiate when an anomaly arises in the system. You want to aim for the latter.
Don’t be defensive. Defensiveness is the reactive approach, which as we’ve already noted, is what you want to avoid. The more defensive you are, the more guilty you’ll appear. Start rattling off all the reasons it’s not your fault and your client will automatically assume it is. “The [artist] doth protest too much, methinks,” etc . Don’t tell them it’s not your fault. Show them. If you’ve maintained the proper documentation of your protocol and materials, that should be easy.
Listen. Keep an open ear. Let your client vent and don’t start playing the blame game when they point the finger at you. Chances are, they will, but that’s only natural. You’re the professional in the situation, so keep a cool head and hear them out. Maintain a humble attitude and make them understand that you are just as keen on getting to the bottom of it as they are. Once they’re done venting, follow up with questions about their aftercare, keeping in mind they’re likely to stretch the truth to save face. If they swear they’ve followed all your recommendations . . .
Utilize your system (pull the paperwork). This goes back to the idea of showing rather than telling. Go to your filing system and pull every piece of documentation related to their visit. Show them how and when your station was cleaned before they sat down in your chair along with what products were used and then show them the tracing system you have in place for the needles and ink. Then, remind them that they watched you open the needle package. If necessary, call the manufacturers and verify no other problems have arisen from the products you used.
Show empathy. This will go a long way. Remember, your client is freaking out and arguably, rightfully so. At best, they’re dealing with a flawed tattoo; at worst, they’re looking at long-term health issues and a stack of medical bills. If you’ve done everything the right way, you don’t have to apologize for your actions, but you should still show them that you feel sorrow for what they’ve endured.
Learn from the experience. Trials and tribulations are opportunities for growth. When this situation arises at your shop, take advantage. Go back over your process in light of the revelation and see how you can tighten the system. There’s always room for improvement.
Written by David Pogge – Expert advice provided by Jose Pena of Xtreme Tattoo in Sheffield, OH