Blue latex gloves, sterilized needles and rubbing alcohol lay sprawled out on a wooden desk, reminiscent of a surgeon’s table. The Mary Ward Hall dorm room filled with the mechanical buzz of a tattoo machine as 18-year-old studio art student Eva Rodriguez traced the outline of a forestscape.
Rodriguez has been tattooing and piercing SF State students and people from the Bay Area since she moved to SF State in Fall 2014, she said. She charges as low as $15 for piercings and a has a minimum of $30 for tattoos.
“It’s definitely like a business,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve pierced over a 100 people. Tattoos, I’ve done about 20 or 30. I’m pretty much just starting but so far I haven’t gotten any complaints.”
Rodriguez began her venture with piercing when she pierced her own ears in eighth grade despite her parents’ disapproval. She began piercing her friends while she attended high school in San Diego and eventually attracted students from other schools who were interested and willing to pay.
“I was getting people from an hour, two hours away asking me to pierce their lips and noses and at that point I felt like I could start charging,” she said.
Rodriguez said she developed an interest in tattooing because it combined her passion for art and meeting new people. She worked as an apprentice for a tattoo shop in San Diego for a short time before coming to SF State where she said she learned the basics of tattooing.
“They would kind of teach me some techniques. I’d watch them, how they prepared (tattoos),” Rodriguez said. “Every now and then I’d get to do a hands-on kind of thing. They’d let me fill in something but I never got to do full on sleeves over there.”
When Rodriguez moved to SF State, she said she gained a lot of customers after she promoted her services through Facebook and Instagram. Her tattoos tend to be small and simple, she said, since she still considers herself a beginner. Rodriguez does most types of piercings, including everything from conventional nose and ear piercings to more uncommon nipple and clitoris piercings.
“I just want my customers to feel safe and I don’t want to pierce someone and then ruin their life,” Rodriguez said. “That’s really important to me. I don’t do any piercings that I’m unsure about.”
Besides building connections with new customers from SF State and across the Bay Area, Rodriguez said the cash she has earned from tattoos and piercings helps support her financially while she is in school.
Tattooing and piercing out of her dorm room, Rodriguez said she uses sterilized needles, wears gloves and takes other safety precautions to keep her customers safe in the informal environment.
Tattoo artists and body piercers, regardless of whether they work at an established business or as practitioners like Rodriguez, are required to obtain a permit from the San Francisco Department of Public Health. These artists must pay an initial application fee of $100 in addition to an annual $100 fee to the San Francisco Tax Collector, are required to have proof of training in piercing and tattooing and must complete training in sanitation and blood borne pathogens.
Hannah Wednesday is a tattoo artist at Tuesday Tattoo in the Outer Sunset who has gone through the licensing process. She said she began apprenticing at the shop seven years ago.
“It took me like a year or so to get (my teacher) to agree to teach me,” she said. “He took teaching me very seriously. Traditionally, learning to tattoo is what you learn from someone else and not everyone wants to share all their secrets. It’s like a long-fought battle to have someone teach you how to tattoo.”
Tuesday Tattoo undergoes inspection by the city every year to ensure sanitation standards are being met, Wednesday said. She said she must pay the city’s tax collector every year and complete an online blood borne pathogen seminar, which lasts about 3 hours.
“Every tattoo artist is supposed to do this once a year,” Wednesday said. “We are supposed to renew our certificate to say we are up to date with sterilization procedures and biohazards.”
Wednesday said she knows many professional tattoo artists who work out of their homes and have clean and sanitary tattooing. She advised anyone interested in getting a new tattoo to educate themselves on the safety and sanitation procedures of the artist being considered.
“There are people that do a very professional job out of their house,” Wednesday said. “Do your research. Before anybody gets a tattoo they should be doing research about the people who are doing the tattoo.”
Rodriguez said that although she has completed the sanitation and blood borne pathogen training, the high application costs, the annual fee and her incomplete training have prevented her from pursuing a license.
Additionally, the SF State University Housing 2014-2015 Student Housing License Agreement prohibits students from conducting business while living in on-campus student housing. Nevertheless, Rodriguez continues to tattoo students and people in the Bay Area out of her dorm room.
Rodriguez is not the only student who is tattooing in the dorms. English major Chandler Vannasdall said his friend gave him his first tattoo in the dorm rooms one month after moving to SF State: a Pabst Blue Ribbon design stick and poke located on his right forearm. The amateur stick and poke method of tattooing uses a needle covered in ink to scrape the skin into a design.
“I’ve always wanted to get (a tattoo) done from people I know and not have it cost hundreds of dollars,” Vannasdall said.
Since then, Vannasdall said he and his friends have had stick and poke parties in the dorms where they tattoo each other.
“There are people that can do really dope (stick and pokes) but for the most part I try to stick to simple words or outlines,” he said. “They’re not perfect lines. You wouldn’t complain about your stick and poke like you would about a tattoo. There’s an expectation for it to be sort of amateur.”
Both Vannasdall and Rodriguez said they enjoyed the personal relationships that they built while tattooing in the dorms.
“A lot of times people get tattoos or piercings when they’re in a new change in their life,” Rodriguez said. “Like something just happened, they want to start new. A lot of people get a piercing or dye their hair, or get a tattoo. It’s nice to be a part of that.”