The whining of tattoo machines is reminiscent, in a not-so-pleasing way, of dentists' drills.
But Debra Walker, who works as a hygienist at a Colorado Springs dental office, says she takes comfort when she finds similarities between her own work and that of body-art professionals.
Waiting at Holey Rollers tattoo and piercing shop on a Monday afternoon, she talks casually about the basics: Rubber gloves should be worn, surfaces scrubbed.
Identifying other safety measures requires a more discerning eye. Walker notes that weekly spore-test results must be posted, and she argues that customers should be comfortable asking about the tests or any other safety issues.
The problem, of course, is that most customers are more worried about beautification than sterilization.
"I think these young kids, they don't know to ask these questions," Walker says.
Walker stayed quiet when she got her first tattoo 20 years ago in San Diego. It was to be a smiley face on the back of her hip, but it came out fuzzy and indistinct, likely because of a dull needle. She later had another design placed over it.
Some cautionary tales don't allow for a do-over. Marcea Flowers, owner of Holey Rollers in downtown Colorado Springs, talks about a girl who had a nipple pierced at an unnamed shop. A post-piercing infection spread to a milk duct and later forced a surgeon to remove part of her breast.
Now, as health officials lift local body-art regulations in the face of a county budget crunch, Flowers fears a spread of bad practices could make such stories more common.
"If this goes the way I'm afraid it's going to go," Flowers says, "people are going to be scared."
Less than a year ago, county health officials tightened body-art regulations, leaving the public with 12 pages requiring, among other things, that artists get yearly training to control bloodborne pathogens and that shops check their sterilizers with weekly tests.
Those regulations essentially become suggestions this week, as the El Paso County Board of Health adjusts to a $507,000 cut from its 2008 budget.
(The board originally offered to suspend body-art and meth-lab cleanup regulations to save $407,000. They are just beginning discussions of how to save the extra $100,000 that was trimmed as county commissioners carved out $9.1 million in savings to balance the 2008 budget.)
Flowers is trying to build support for the Colorado Springs Professional Body Art Guild, a proposed voluntary program in which business owners would keep up with the same inspections and training. Whether it will take hold is anyone's guess. Six or seven other businesses are interested, but Flowers worries about the proliferation of sloppy, bargain-basement outlets that give the industry a bad name.
Flowers got into the business 15 years ago after seeing how bad things can be. She went with a friend for a piercing job and found a filthy shop with dogs running around and cigarette smoke hanging in the air.
The piercing "artist" told her friend to shut up when she asked questions.
"I said, "If you let this guy put a needle through your nipple, you're insane,'" Flowers says.
The friend took her chances, and Flowers later opened up shop.
The El Paso County Department of Health and Environment takes two different approaches to controlling infectious diseases. The first involves preventing them with educational programs and inspections at places where they might be spread (notably restaurants, swimming pools and, yes, body-art shops).
The second involves reacting after a disease comes to light by finding the source and taking steps to root it out.
Both approaches have suffered from repeated budget cuts. Kandi Buckland, the health department's deputy director, recently told a county budget advisory group that it is impossible to continue twice-yearly restaurant inspections, as required by law.
Buckland said the department no longer has enough staff to handle two simultaneous disease outbreaks, meaning multiple cases of tuberculosis at different schools could prompt difficult discussions about which is the greater threat.
A Fort Carson health official told commissioners that ending inspections at body-art places frequented by soldiers is a bad idea. He suggested the cost of investigating hepatitis or another disease linked to a shop could make inspections look cheap.
Body-art businesses now pay $120 to renew their annual license. A simple solution would include raising the fee; Buckland says that's not an option. The department can charge for the actual cost of doing inspections, but not for hidden expenses such as simply maintaining the office.
Still, Holey Rollers is busy this Monday afternoon. Walker waits for an artist to resume work on a pattern of flowers covering her back, while her husband, on leave from Iraq, sits down for his own tattoo, a memorial to two fallen soldiers from his unit.
Many other soldiers are doing likewise, Sgt. Gary Walker says. He suggests most of them won't worry about a change in regulations.
"People are going to get tattoos, no matter what."