Diseases that can be acquired during the tattooing process are hepatitis B and HIV, though both are easily preventable. Professional tattoo shops should have in place a complete medical grade sterilization process that involves the use of an autoclave. An autoclave uses heat and pressure to sterilize surgical equipment of all kinds, and is used to clean the tubes that hold the tattooing needles. The needles are single use only, and should be discarded in a medical waste container. The ink should not be shared, and the work surface should be sterilized in between customers. With these basic practices, plus the blood work safety knowledge of your professional tattoo artist, you can be assured that getting your tattoo will be a clean and safe experience.
No cases have ever been reported in which HIV was transmitted through professional tattooing in America, although there have been a dozen or so reported on HIV transmitted through tattoos received in jail. Tattooing in jail is illegal, and rarely practiced in a safe manner, and the sharing of needles without sterilization in between uses can transmit HIV. The reason it’s not easy to transmit through tattooing lies in HIV’s limited survival once airborne.
Hepatitis B is much harder to kill, making it much easier to transmit from one person to another. A basic accidental stick from a contaminated needle can transmit Hepatitis B, so the tattoo artist needs to be careful not to stick themselves with any used needles. Any clean needles that accidentally stick someone should be disposed of properly, the equipment cleaned, and re-set up. Hepatitis B can be also transmitted through cross contamination of ink, dirty equipment, a dirty work area, etc.
There are about twenty other possible diseases that can be passed through a contaminated needle, including syphilis and tuberculosis, though these are more difficult to transmit than Hepatitis B. With proper cleaning and precautions against cross contamination, any disease being spread to the customer is almost impossible. If you have any doubts about the cleanliness and professionalism of your tattoo artist, or if their answers to your questions do not seem adequate, it is better to be safe and take your business elsewhere. If unsafe practices are apparent, please report them to your board of health in order to protect other, maybe less informed customers from being contaminated.