CoVida Loca – 4 suggestions for staying safe, by a tattoo artist

Hi All,

How are you doing in these most bizarre and baffling of times? I hope you are well and have a good strong support network and somewhere safe to isolate…….Together we can and will get through this.

At the moment the pandemic has a multitude of humans beaten down. Let’s be real, we are in shock and grief and trying to adjust to a lot of very abrupt changes that have been suddenly forced upon us.

For some it means learning to deal with unaccustomed confinement and solitude, while trying to rapidly upskill to unfamiliar methods of working.

For some of us it means sudden and complete loss of income, figuring out how to cope in reduced circumstances and how to manage the attendant anxiety that this brings. 

For others it means real, immediate and life threatening hardship.

And this is before the worst of the crisis even hits, before we start getting sick or have friends or loved ones become ill. With a dread feeling of anticipatory grief, we are all facing the inevitability that this will occur in the coming weeks.

This virus is “novel”, what that means is that there is no human who has immunity to it.

This novel coronavirus has a relatively long asymptomatic period during which a carrier can be contagious.

This virus, properly known as SARS-Cov2 although with gallows humour we call it Rona or Miley, is also pretty hardy and can endure for quite some time on surfaces.

These characteristics have enabled the virus to flourish and it is currently escalating in an inexorable and exponential reproduction.

Due to these properties, almost unbelievably, in early 2020 this microscopic pathogen managed to bring a mighty nation of 1.4 billion people to its knees. Now, only a few short weeks later, it is compelling entire realms and systems to an unprecedented global grinding halt.

There is a natural tendency to feel fearful when overwhelmed by news like this. However I think we have real grounds to be confident and fearless. We human beings have our own unique characteristics which will inevitably enable us to triumph over this foe. It is just a matter of time.

Humans are problem solvers. We are inventors and, given time, there is every likelihood that scientists will discover a vaccine and/or better yet a prophylactic.

Most importantly we have the capacity for compassion, to care for each other and unite against this universal foe. At the moment we have an opportunity to become more aware than ever of our interconnectedness and how our choices and actions will ripple out to affect others.

Also paramount among our attributes is our ability to share information.

One coronavirus cannot communicate to another in a different part of the world the most efficient way to spread amongst humans beings. In contrast, we humans are able to co-operate and share, to learn from the experience of others and to spread the word about the best ways to stay safe and halt transmission as much as possible.

Working in a tattoo studio for over twenty years, I would like to offer my perspective. I’m not a nurse or doctor or any kind of expert, but I learned how to survive and thrive fearlessly in a potentially biohazardous environment.

The first thing required is a mental attitude, from this flows a mode of operation, which leads to establishing protocols and finally results in ingrained habits.

I started tattooing in the early nineties when there was still a lot of misinformation about HIV, not to mention the much more hardy hepatotropic viruses A, B, C, D & E.

It was pretty common for tattoo studios to request their customers to fill out a form which included disclosure of their health status. However, for a tattooist to rely on this was naive and irresponsible. Firstly because people were under no obligation to disclose, and if they were positive many might not wish to do so due to legitimate concerns about social stigma.

And secondly because there was always the very real possibility that somebody was in fact HIV+ or had hepatitis but was unaware of it because it was as yet undetected.

Therefore the only way to ensure the best possible practice to protect both ourselves and all our clients, was for tattoo artists to learn to work by assuming that every single customer had all the diseases (1. Mental attitude) and take the appropriate safety measures (2. Modus operandi) to avoid cross contamination. This is known as “Universal Precautions” or “Standard Precautions” (3. Protocol).

Over time these procedures become ingrained and you don’t even have to think about them so much (4. Habits of good practice).

These methods really work, for many winters I was lucky enough to completely avoid catching colds and flu which if I stop to think about it was not really due to luck but more likely a fortunate side effect of my work practices – frequent handwashing, meticulous cleaning of all work surfaces before and after each client, using my elbows to turn off taps or turn on light switches, using my knee or hip to open doors, and avoiding touching my face for long periods of time while gloved up tattooing people – no matter how annoying the itch on my nose might be!

So, thinking about this flow on effect (mental attitude —-> mode of operation —-> protocol —-> habit) perhaps we can apply it to our current situation.

Unfortunately we are now united in a predicament which requires everybody to think about this and become a little bit more conversant with methods of preventing cross contamination.

Because of the ease of transmission and the long asymptomatic incubation period of this particular virus, I believe that the only appropriate mental attitude is to assume that we already have it.

And the relevant flow on mode of operation is to act in a way that will prevent us spreading it to anyone else.

In other words, to cease thinking about it in terms of “How can I avoid contracting this?”, and instead to start thinking “It’s entirely possible that I am already hosting this parasitic little protein, so what is the best way I can prevent passing it to others?”

The most effective way to do this is of course, to minimise contact. Stay home as much as possible!

If you’re in a situation where it is not possible for you to stay home, still minimise contact by keeping as far away as possible from other people. If you have one, wear a mask to prevent your exhalations becoming their inhalations.

In summary – most importantly – act as if you already have it.

Then secondly – of course, do everything you can to avoid becoming a vector for transmission in the first place.

What this means is:

• Avoid touching your face with your hands. Nose, mouth and even eyes are the gateway for micro-organisms. Develop mindfulness about your reaction to sensations on the face. By paying frequent attention, you can create a brief window of awareness between experiencing a sensation and reacting to it by touching. Mindfulness is to be aware of this window of opportunity for non-reaction, and to keep enlarging it.

• Constant thorough hand washing or hand sanitising, constant thorough cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, I know, it’s tedious and it feels excessive or paranoid, do it anyway, do it until it becomes second nature and you no longer have to think about it.

• As we can’t know otherwise, your best bet is to assume anyone else you meet has the virus as well! Avoiding contact with other people and things that other people may have touched, means that the likelihood of you coming into contact with traces of virus in the first place is greatly diminished. 

At the end of the day none of us can do this perfectly all the time. It’s a lot to think about and requires us to develop all sorts of new co-ordinations and routines that we previously had the luxury of never having to think about, and to practice them until they are second nature. (For instance over the last week I have trained myself to open the latch on the front gate with my foot rather than my hand and I am continuing to do it this way. It will seem very weird, when this risk is diminished, to go back to mindlessly opening it by hand. ((I then leave my shoes outside obviously))

It is true that there are big differences between our well-established routines of fighting cross-contamination in the tattoo studio, and the new challenges we all face with this virus. The potential problems we’re concerned with while safely tattooing, are blood-borne pathogens which require a much more intimate level of contact to transmit. And tattooists are well versed in our procedures. It’s safe to say that nobody is going to contract hepatitis or HIV while getting tattooed in a modern professional studio that follows proper standard precautions. (Your mate’s stick and poke party, well, that’s probably a different story, caveat emptor.)

In comparison, SARS-Cov2 is way more contagious, and most folks are not accustomed at all to consistently following unfamiliar and painstaking hygiene routines.  At this point in time I don’t think we can ever 100% guarantee that we are completely protected from such a subtle and virulent foe. All we can do is do the best we can.

The reality that we need to accept and prepare for is that before this is over, despite our best efforts, a sizeable percentage of us will probably have contracted this pathogen. What those best efforts are doing is buying us time. If we can at least slow down the rate at which we succumb to the ailment, we buy time for the underfunded, undersupplied and overwhelmed medics. And we buy time for the industrious scientists who will inevitably discover the vaccine.

May that time come soon.

megan oliver tattooist blog


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