I’m a visual learner; if I don’t see it, I won’t remember it. That’s one of the reasons I was so frustrated when I was apprenticing, because my mentor was big on setting up very strict zones in his work space and I could never quite visualize them. So I finally drew myself a map (that may or may not have been stylistically based on this map) and learned the system.
The zone system is a way of preventing contamination during your tattoo. If you haven’t taken your bloodborne pathogens class yet* you might not think that’s a big deal, but trust me: it is 100% your responsibility to prevent contamination during your session. If you fail, you can scar someone for life or – worst case scenario – kill them with an infection. There are plenty of examples of these infections happening, including outbreaks of MRSA caused by non-sterile equipment.
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The three zone method doesn’t make contamination impossible, but it does help make it less likely. The zones break down like this:
All sterilized materials (including ink) are stored in the cold zone. This zone should be kept separate from the warm and hot zones by a closed cabinet door or drawer. Once the tattoo session has started there should be zero contact with the cold zone.
The warm zone can be touched during the tattoo process but only with clean gloves. The warm zone includes and furniture that may come into contact with the bodily fluids during the tattoo. Every item in the warm zone should be wrapped in plastic prior to starting the tattoo; this includes the furniture that will be in the hot zone once you begin. Make sure all barrier wraps are taped down to ensure no fluid contaminates the furniture beneath the plastic (this really just makes clean up way, way easier).
The warm zone should also include your wash bottle and any spray bottles you might need during the tattoo or clean up. These bottles should be bagged in a non-permeable plastic, such as a Ziploc bag.
Tattoo machines, clip cords and power supplies are also considered to be in the warm zone. They should be covered with a barrier wrap prior to beginning the work. If the tattoo machine is not covered and is exposed to bodily fluid, it must be considered “hot” until fully sterilized.
Bandaging materials for the client should be moved to the warm zone before beginning the tattoo.
The hot zone is established the minute the needle breaks the skin. It contains the client, the (bagged) machine, ink caps, anything on the work tray and your gloves.
There should never be any bottles of ink in the hot zone or on your work tray. Ink bottles should always be stored in your cold zone.
NEVER refill an ink cap that has been in the hot zone. If you must refill your ink after beginning, you will need to stop the tattoo, wash your hands, don new gloves, take new ink caps and ink from the cold zone, fill the new ink caps and return the cold zone supplies to their area before restarting the tattoo. It is much better to pour more ink initially than it is to potentially contaminate your cold zone by needing to refill ink during the tattoo.
The client is a hot zone until they are cleaned and bandaged.
The artist cannot leave their work area until the hot zone has been de-established. This means all hot materials should be thrown away properly or taken to the sterilization area if they are non-disposable. The work area must also be sprayed with an EPA-approved virucide and allowed to set per the manufacturer’s instructions.