TOKYO -- U.S. military officials won't name the tattoo shops whose unsanitary conditions likely sent a handful of U.S. troops to the emergency room recently, despite a potential public health risk. Officials said Monday that singling out one business could give the wrong impression that other tattoo parlors are safe.
Officials at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa gave the names of three shops to local government officials on July 3 for their possible role in last month's surge of tattoo-related skin infections that landed five servicemembers in the hospital with infections.
But Okinawa Prefectural Government officials said the names of those shops -- in Chatan and Nago -- will be withheld from the public as U.S. military officials investigate. The Okinawa government will "launch an investigation of the tattoo shops in question on their own at the earliest possible time," officials said.
That's not enough for some.
"They should come out with the name so people don't get sick," Air Force spouse Terri Hochstein said.
Since the shops have not been publicly identified, none has been declared off limits to base personnel. There are no tattoo establishments off limits in Okinawa or Japan -- even though a tattoo artist operating without a medical license in Japan is violating the law.
"There is no license or permission for tattoo businesses in Japan," said Hiroaki Arakaki, spokesman for the Health Care Policy Division of the Medial Department of the Okinawa Prefectural Government. "If we can confirm that the subject shops engage in tattooing, the government will instruct the shops to stop the illegal conduct," he said.
While it is regulated by the U.S. military, getting a tattoo is not a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"If we posted a list of tattoo parlors that were linked to infections, it would imply that establishments not on the list were safe and tacitly endorsed by the hospital," Navy hospital officials said in a written response.
The officials pointed out that all businesses of this type are unregulated and recommended that U.S. troops and other Defense Department personnel avoid tattoo parlors completely while stationed outside the U.S.
"Servicemembers receive briefs about health concerns and tattoo safety which instruct them about the risks of getting tattoos and what measures to take in ensuring that the tattoo establishment they have chosen abides by the necessary health standards," 1st Lt. Noah Rappahahn, a spokesman for the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, said in an email to Stars and Stripes. He added that a "public health announcement regarding tattoo safety was pushed out to all commands within III MEF and is readily available online for all servicemembers and their families stationed in Okinawa."
Naval Hospital Okinawa issued the warning to servicemembers that Japanese tattoo establishments are not regulated nor inspected under Japanese law.
"I would not recommend getting a tattoo, but if personnel choose to they should do some careful research before selecting a tattoo facility," Lt. Cmdr. Marion Gregg, director of public health at the Okinawa hospital said last week in a news release. "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 warning did not keep servicemembers and their families out of the tattoo shops over the Fourth of July weekend.
Inside the bevy of shops outside Camp Foster's front gate, there was barely a free seat in any waiting room. Everyone waiting to get inked up said they were aware of the risks but were going by word of mouth, past experience and the recommendations of friends.
"This is the only place I go," Hochstein said as she exited one shop with a fresh, elaborately detailed bird and cage on her upper thigh.
Airman Johnattan Hutchinson, 22, from Puerto Rico said he was scared when he heard about the warning, but he has a history with his tattoo shop and trusts their procedures. He was in to get color added to a spider/skull tattoo on the back of his calf.
Tattoo shop owners and employees said they were making an extra effort to tell customers about their safety procedures.
According to the base hospital in Okinawa, all five of the recent infections were easily treatable and no servicemember contracted hepatitis B or any of the other potential life-altering diseases associated with unsanitary needles.
However, the local Marines, family members, base civilians and tattoo shop employees who Stars and Stripes interviewed said the shop responsible for the scare needs to be identified and shut down.
"Those rumors don't help anybody," Hutchinson said.
-- Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.