What would you do if a tattoo could kill you?

What would you do if a tattoo could kill you?

There are people out there who can't get tattooed. Not because of moral, religious or professional reasons but because getting a tattoo could kill them. Yayo blog writer Matt Haddon-Reichardt has a very personal insight into the world of the those who can never go under the needle.   


My family is unusual; 3 of my closest relatives can’t get tattooed.  They have all been advised by Doctors that tattooing would harmful and for 2 it has the potential to kill them.

“I always wanted to get my RAF number tattooed on my arm,” says my dad with a frown as he passes me my coffee.

Sat in my mum and dad's lounge of the 8 people helping me celebrate turning 42, 3 of them have been told by doctors not to get tattooed. My mum, dad and daughter to be specific. As I watch my daughter play with her Frozen dolls I think of the challenging conversation with her teenage future self, when I have to tell her she can’t get tattooed.

My daughter has a heart condition; pulmonary stenosis. The valve on the pulmonary artery which takes deoxygenated blood back to the lungs is restricted. This can cause a lack oxygen round the body resulting in shortness of breath, blue lips, blue finger nail beds and in extreme cases disability and death. Thankfully her condition is mild and now, as she heads towards her 7th birthday, doctors are confident she will not need open heart surgery or any invasive procedures. Despite her heart being stable she still cannot get tattooed.

The risk with pulmonary stenosis comes from infection in the shape of bacterial endocarditis. Bacteria that enter the body through the blood stream can collect on the restricted heart valve. This pooling of bacteria can infect the heart and prove fatal. To prevent bacteria entering the blood stream and getting to the heart people with pulmonary stenosis have to be vigilant against infection. Good dental hygiene, immediate treatment of infection with antibiotics and avoiding piercings and tattoos are essential to maintain a healthy heart.

Any cut or graze to the skin which results in an open wound can risk infection; this includes tattoos. In the small hours of those early days after diagnosis I would hold her in my tattoo covered arms and smile at the irony that a tattoo journalist’s daughter would never be able to join the tattoo club.


“I never wanted a tattoo but I certainly wouldn’t want one now. Pain isn’t worth looking cool.”

“Pass me the biscuits Matt,” asked my mum as she sits down with her coffee.

My mum has recently been told to avoid tattoos and piercings. She was diagnosed last year with neuralgia after having a tooth extracted at the dentist. The trauma of having the tooth pulled caused the nerve on the left side of her face to become inflamed and over sensitive. It has left her struggling with pain and the feeling like something is stuck to her face pulsating. She calls it her Alien.

I ask her how she is feeling.

“I’m ok but the Alien is playing up.”

The neuralgia is part of a bigger picture of neurological conditions my mum has been suffering with for years. Beginning with degeneration of the spine and a trapped nerve from years of heavy lifting as a nurse her condition deteriorated into fibromyalgia and now neuralgia. When conventional medicine failed she opted for an ill-advised trip to an acupuncture clinic which left her no better off.

“I didn’t realise at the time that acupuncture can actually trigger a more aggressive response in neuralgia,” she says, “It’s lucky he didn’t stick them in my face.”

Her GP advised a change of medication and avoiding needles including piercings and tattoos.

“I never wanted a tattoo but I certainly wouldn’t want one now. Pain isn’t worth looking cool.”

Its early days but my mum’s condition has at least stabilised. Unfortunately for my dad that is not the case.


"Thinking about it being tattooed is getting more common than not being tattooed."


The same week my daughter was born my dad was diagnosed with leukemia; chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Normally a man in his late 60’s would die of something else before the leukemia took its toll but a gene depletion, which has caused a rare subtype, has resulted in a vastly reduced lifespan. My dad has a mean life expectancy of 4 years.

Last Christmas marked my dad passing the 6 year mark. A tattoo was firmly on his bucket list until doctors banned him. Much like my daughter the risk is bacterial infection.

“The leukemia affects both my red and white blood cells. I’m at risk of anaemia as the cancer destroys my red blood cells and infection as my white cell count drops,” I remember him telling me as we nursed a pint in the post diagnosis pub analysis.


Out of the 3 my dad is the one most at risk from tattooing.

Leukemia’s later stages mimic AIDS; a total collapse of the immune system.

He can’t use public transport, go to the packed cinema, visit a school or pretty much do anything involving crowds and young children. He has to avoid exposure to infection and people harbour infection. A busy tattoo shop would be out of the question with all that blood and plasma. Much like my daughter, introducing bacteria to his blood stream by tattooing would be catastrophic. Even the cleanest and most hygienic tattoo study would still pose a risk. Out of the 3 my dad is the one most at risk from tattooing.

I once asked him if he regrets not being able to tick a tattoo off his bucket list.

“Not really,” he said with a smile.

“It would have been nice but at least I avoid the pain. After going through bone marrow samples I think I’ve suffered enough. Thinking about it, being tattooed is getting more common than not being tattooed. I guess I’m finally the rebel I always wanted to be.” 



A final thought from the author: "Its been a tough few years what with my family coming to terms with serious and life changing illness. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the tattoo community who has supported me. My friends, colleagues, editors, all the people I have interviewed and the tattooists who have given me wonderful body art. I would like to extend heart felt gratitude to Kirk and the rest of the Yayo team. You really have made me part of the family. I don't just use Yayo on my tattoos because I work for the company I use it because its the best aftercare on the market. If you want the best then use the best; use Yayo!"

Yayo... its a family thing.


 Words by Matt Haddon-Reichardt
Images by Matt Haddon-Reichardt and as credited