Oregon Health Authority pulls the plug on recently opened Unique Tattoo

A St. Helens tattoo artist is under scrutiny for operating without a health license intended to protect patrons against the spread of serious ailments such as Hepatitis C, blood poisoning and staph infections.

The Oregon Health Licensing Agency has opened an investigation into Jason Weaser, owner of Unique Tattoo in St. Helens' Olde Towne, effectively shutting down his recently opened tattoo shop. The OHLA first learned of Weaser's unlicensed status from The Spotlight, which discovered the discrepancy from a state database of license holders.

Kraig Bohot, a spokesman for the state's health licensing agency, said he couldn't give many details about the investigation until it concludes. He doesn't expect that to take long.

'I don't think it will take much to make a case,' Bohot said.

In a phone interview, Weaser said he was never told he needed to obtain a special license from the state.

'They're passing the buck and saying it's all my responsibility,' Weaser said, adding that he has hundreds of hours of apprenticeship training and previously worked as a tattoo artist in Washington, which has a similar licensing program.

Weaser is not licensed in Washington, either, according to that state's database.

Since opening his tattoo shop earlier this spring, Weaser hasn't shied away from attention. He advertised Unique Tattoo and was the center of a glowing business profile in one local newspaper last week, in which he told that paper he had 'no formal training.'

Both tattoo artists and the shops they run must be licensed through the state. The license is good for two years and has been a state requirement since 1993. The upfront cost for a license, after the requisite training, is $375, and the cost of renewal is $125. Failure to get a license can result in a minimum $3,000 fine.

That fine is intended to dissuade unlicensed artists from setting up shop. But in recent years there's been a statewide uptick in unlicensed tattoo artists.

In 2010, the OHLA collected $19,000 in fines from unlicensed artists. Though a sharp dip from the $34,500 collected in 2009 - a record high for the agency - it was still well above the totals collected in 2007 and 2008: $11,750 and $10,600 respectively.

Because unsanitary tattoos can pose serious health risks to those on the receiving end of the ink, it's among the most heavily licensed - and fined - OHLA-regulated professions.

Ian Penner, a physician assistant with the OHSU Family Clinic in Scappoose, said a bad tattoo can spell disaster, even though the industry has improved by leaps and bounds over the years as tattoos have become more commonplace.

'The vast majority of studios are sanitary now,' he said. 'But the biggest risk is if you go someplace that's fly by night.'

Hepatitis C and blood poisoning are the most common ailments, he said. He added that some tattoo-related medical issues, such as skin infections, can be just as common at licensed tattoo shops.

For his part, Weaser maintains that he's not trying to take any shortcuts with his business. And though the doors of Unique Tattoo remain open, he's not going to perform anymore tattoos until he's taken care of his fine and fulfilled the state's licensing requirements, he said.

He declined to say where he was taking his continuing education classes to meet the licensing requirements, however, and added that he plans to fight the state's fine.

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