Losing an Eye for Beauty

Emmanuel Meza’s tattooed black eyes are hard to miss. His procedure cost $2,000. (Photo courtesy Emmanuel Meza)


Some say beauty is pain, but would you risk losing your eyesight to experiment with a tattoo style?

Eye tattoos are not as common as skin tattoos, but they certainly left a lasting mark on one Ottawa woman. Catt Gallinger, 25, almost lost her eyesight after an eye tattoo went horribly wrong, according to reports from Canadian media last year.

“If it went well for you when you got yours done, I’m sorry to disappoint you but, but that is called LUCK not EXPERTISE,” Gallinger said in a December 2017 Facebook post about the procedure.

Gallinger’s case is not the first in Canada where eye tattoos have backfired. According to Eye Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (EPSO), last year “A 24-year-old Alberta man had his eye surgically removed as a result of bacteria-contaminated tattoo ink which was injected into the eye.”

The procedure, known as scleral pigmentation, uses a needle to inject coloured ink into the whites of the eye.

In Ontario, Dr. Jordan Cheskes, who practises in Toronto, was successful in banning eye tattoos last year after Gallinger’s case went viral.

“For a botched tattoo, particularly an eye tattoo, there was no recourse for a tattoo artist at that time. Now if someone were to do it they could be charged for performing an act of a physician,” Cheskes said.

The ophthalmologist and chair of the EPSO put forth a motion to amend Bill 160; Strengthening Quality and Accountability for Patients Act. The legislation now bans eye tattoos as well as implanting foreign objects into the eye for cosmetic purposes.

“It was one of the fastest laws that went through the Ontario legislation in the past 25 years,” he said. “It took about a month to be passed.” The bill was proposed in October 2017 and passed in December 2017.

Following the amendment of Bill 160, other places including Manitoba, and Indiana in the US modelled new legislation after Ontario’s eye tattoo ban.

“It’s good to know our movement that we did with the Ministry of Health has been replicated by other jurisdictions in North America,” Cheskes said.

He recognizes the dangers of eye tattoos, citing two mechanisms of injury. The first is the actual penetration from the needle damaging the internal structure of the eye. The second is when the dye from the tattoo causes scarring and chronic inflammation.

“Tattoo artists are not comfortable doing eye tattoos, and most artists I hope are responsible and know their limits of what they can or cannot do,” Cheskes said.

Eye tattoo surgeries are available to either tattoo the pupil onto the centre of the cornea for cosmetic reasons, or to black out part of the cornea where traumatized eyes become sensitive to light passing through, Cheskes said.

Even ophthalmologists who are qualified to perform specific eye tattoos do not do this often. In Toronto, there are other forms of programs and legislations that protect people’s health and safety concerning personal services, including tattoos.

The Bodysafe Program started in 2015 by the City of Toronto, but they have been inspecting personal services settings since about 2009, said Cecilia Alterman, Toronto Public Health spokesperson and manager for infection control and infectious disease.

Tattoo studios have been required to have a licence since 2014, she added.

“We try to focus on infection prevention and control practices to ensure that services are provided in a safe manner, and to give the public information to make an educated choice whether or not to go into a certain premise of a service,” Alterman said.

Despite the risk eye tattoos pose, this particular body modification still continues to be sought out by daring individuals.

“Ever since I was a kid I really enjoyed darker things,” Emmanuel Meza said. “But when I saw eye tattoos, it wasn’t a matter of it looking scary to me. It mainly just looked beautiful.”

(Photo courtesy Emmanuel Meza)

The 29-year-old Native American living in Hollywood, Calif., has an eye tattoo on both eyes in the colour black.

“Tattoos are legislated; piercings are legislated; you need to be licensed,” Meza said.

He strategically waited a few years before going under the needle to be certain of the effects by following people with eye tattoos for a long time.

“You’re essentially doing eye surgery,” Meza said. “There’s no room for mistakes.”

Meza received his eye tattoos from a body modifier who goes by the name Luna Cobra. “He is the person that popularized eye tattoos.”

Corneal tattooing has been a part of history for a long time but the art of dyeing the whites of the eye was first conducted in 2007 by Luna Cobra. He used a traditional hand-poked technique.

For Meza, he says his $2,000 procedure went without a hitch because of his personal research and use of an experienced body modifier.

“Body modifications are not legislated and they should be. If it takes being illegal so people don’t injure themselves then I think that’s necessary,” Meza said.

Even though there needs to more research and practice to truly understand eye tattooing, Gallinger’s case serves as a reminder of its dangers.

“You do NOT know what you are doing,” Gallinger addressed the person who tattooed her eye in a Facebook post in December 2017. “It takes 12 years to learn the full anatomy of the eye and how to do injections…. If you haven’t spent that time learning it then you should NOT be touching it with anything.”

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