Five U.S. servicemembers on Okinawa ended up in the hospital emergency room this month seeking treatment for infections related to getting tattoos in unsanitary conditions at tattoo shops off base, according to Navy officials.
Navy officials say at least four of the patients received their tattoos from the same shop, but the military has not identified the alleged offender.
Four of the troops were treated for a bacterial skin infection (cellulitis), while the other case was the result of a tattoo over a smallpox vaccine site, which then spread to the rest of the tattoo on the person’s arm. Two of the servicemembers needed to be hospitalized; one of them was admitted to the intensive care unit, according to Brian Davis, Naval Hospital Okinawa spokesman.
Though technically illegal in Japan, tattoo shops can be easily found throughout the country; they are especially prevalent outside the gates of U.S. bases. On Okinawa, it is common to see U.S. troops lined up out the door on most evenings to get some new ink.
Japanese officials say they are waiting for more information from the Navy hospital on which shop or shops were linked to the emergency room visits.
“We were informed of the infections June 13 by the U.S. Navy Hospital (on Okinawa),” said Atsushi Ono, chief of the Infectious Diseases Control Team of the Medical Department of the Okinawa Prefectural Government. “We have made inquiries about the detail on the shop, including the name and where it is located.”
The subject tattoo shop is believed to be in the central area on the island where major military installations are concentrated.
“Once we can identify the shop, we will have the public health center under the jurisdiction conduct investigation,” he said.
While the five cases in question were easily treatable, unsanitary needles could pass along more severe infections, such as hepatitis B, C, or even HIV, he said.
Inserting needles into the skin is a medical practice, said Yoshiyuki Iha, spokesman for the Health Care Policy Division of the medical department. Therefore any tattoo artist operating without a medical license is doing so illegally.
However, understanding the legal issues surrounding tattoo parlors is extremely difficult, Iha said.
“While there are shops physically located in town, others perform in an apartment room or some even make a house call,” he said. “Once the shop is identified, we will take a necessary action, including an investigation on violation of the Medical Practitioner’s Law.”
While it is regulated by the U.S. military, getting a tattoo is not a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Still, servicemembers should be careful, said Lt. Cmdr. Marion Gregg, director of Public Health at the Okinawa Naval hospital in a Navy release last week.
“I would not recommend getting a tattoo, but if personnel choose to they should do some careful research before selecting a tattoo facility,” Gregg said. “Take a close look at the facility for cleanliness and observe the artist at work to make sure that the tattooing process is as safe and sterile as possible. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
The Naval hospital recently put out a list of tattoo tips and asked people to notify military public health representatives if any they notice any issues.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.