Think! 203 - Who Watches the Watchmen?

Published: 19 September, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 203, September, 2011

It’s a Friday night and you’ve decided to head out for dinner with some friends. None of you are quite certain of exactly what you’re in the mood for, so you decide to peruse the menus of various locations along a popular strip of restaurants.

After considering numerous places for a bite, you and your friends finally agree on one restaurant in particular. The atmosphere is just right, the menu looks fabulous, but just as you’re about to order, you learn that health officials have not inspected the restaurant and that the chef has not taken so much as a food safety course. The chef personally assures you that this isn’t a problem and that despite not being legally certified to prepare or serve food, he most certainly follows all of the strictest health and safety regulations anyway. Are you willing to stay and eat, or would you rather try somewhere else – somewhere that has been approved and licensed by proper health authorities?

For many, tattoo regulation is no different. The ability to legally ensure that the tattooist one has chosen is safe, follows hygienic practices and is approved by a governing health body, seems to be advantageous for two reasons. On one hand, the customer is afforded the comfort of knowing that their tattooist can and will provide the cleanest and safest tattoo that they can, while the tattooist, by extension of the licence and thumbs up from governing health bodies that he or she has been given, receives a much needed vote of confidence from their community. In a way, a licensed and regulated tattooist rightly takes their place as a serious artist in the eyes of society. There’s an arguable notion here that no artist needs to be validated by any government or wing of the governing body, and that what tattooists do has always been something of an outlaw art form that plays by its own rules, rightly giving two fingers to the archaic constraints imposed by government or society in general.

But that notion can be interpreted as slightly selfish, in that it only takes into account the feelings and habits of the tattooist himself and not the public that he or she works with. A chef, for example, takes the culinary arts just as seriously as a great tattooist takes his or her work. Both have studied their respective art forms and continually grow as artists. Yet a great chef, despite being fully aware of what is and isn’t hygienic for his customers, must be licensed to do the job that he does, and his kitchen must pass rather stringent and rigorous inspections by local factions of the health department. This is done to protect the public, but also for the chef himself, as any great artist – be they of the culinary arts or otherwise must be able to appreciate that without the trust and respect of their clientele, they have no one to offer their impressive and well honed artistic skills to. Does this therefore imply that a tattooist’s skills are only valid if he or she can sell them to a consumer? Hardly.

Tattooists follow a lengthy history of artisans who came before them. From these artisans there have been bits and pieces of advice, and in many cases guidance, toward performing and maintaining aspects of the tattoo tradition. Tattooists don’t require regulation to validate their art form, but regulation does validate the business side of tattooing. As unpleasant as it may be of a pill for some to swallow, modern tattoo is an art form as well as a business. Without a public who can trust that they will receive the best body art that their hard earned wages can provide, there is only the art form. That’s just fine, yet the amount of professional tattooists who tattoo strictly for the artistic pursuit, without requiring any sort of monetary gain in return for their efforts, is non-existent in modern society. Therefore, perhaps the most difficult and downright delicate aspect of being a professional tattooist in these times is not entirely about the ability to tattoo and how that craft is learned and honed, but instead how one goes about handling the delicate balancing act between what’s best for the artist, the art form in general, and the clientele. Tattooing can’t simply be an isolated pursuit and because of this, the issue exists to define who can legally be called a tattooist and exactly how qualified such a person is to provide their clientele with the best tattoo possible. That’s where regulation comes in.

Though on paper regulation is a somewhat or perhaps seemingly perfect solution to the problems that have often marred tattoo’s image, the question that continues to rear its head, is whether or not proper licensing of tattooists and strictly enforced regulation actually does anything to prevent the existence of scratchers and DIY wannabe tattooists. The sad fact is that regulation does not entirely stamp out such problems.

In 2005, 15-year-old Julie Thomas of Sussex received a 13cm tattoo of Winnie the Pooh on her arm, with the words ‘Grandpa H’ emblazoned above the cartoon bear, in remembrance of her deceased grandfather. The UK law on tattoo clearly states that no one under the age of 18 is permitted to be tattooed, and although strict licensing and regulation were in place during the time that Thomas received her tattoo, none of this actually prevented her from being tattooed by someone who freely admitted that they weren’t a licensed tattooist and that they only did tattoos as a “hobby”. With an incident like this so open to all who support regulation and licensing as a means to curb/stamp out DIY tattoo, the question must be asked: if regulation can’t prevent a 15-year-old girl from being tattooed by an unlicensed scratcher, then exactly what sort of peace of mind are tattooists paying into when they make the necessary changes to their working environment in order to comply with government regulations?

It’s exactly that type of question that leads some tattooists to cry foul on the entire issue of government regulation, arguing that any attempt on the part of government to install regulations is in fact, little more than a cash grab that will only serve to destroy the current tattoo industry. London-based tattooist Stewart Robson of Frith Street Tattoo contends, “The people who make legislation know nothing about tattooing and what makes it safe or unsafe. They check that you own equipment and not that you understand cross-contamination. The ‘tattoo artists’ who work with the government don’t care about the future of tattooing. They are usually terrible tattooers who know that the only way they can stay in business is to adjust the rules to make it more difficult for more established tattooers to follow the guidelines they instigated. They care about running their competition out of business, not the well-being of their customers or the future of tattooing.”

Strong words indeed, but perhaps they’re words that need to be heard and considered. Is a level playing field rendering the years of sacrifice and hard work of so many tattooists meaningless? It’s a somewhat controversial accusation; given the fact that even with current levels of regulation, amazing tattooists continue to thrive and create art that is highly in demand. Still, other tattooists echo Robson’s concerns, even all the way across the Atlantic. Washington, D.C., which currently has no tattoo regulation in place, is quietly considering going the route of legislation. Tattooists Mark Knopp, owner and operator of Tattoo Paradise feels that governments and tattoo don’t mix. In an article on the website Dcist, Knopp contended that the boards responsible for inspecting and licensing tattooists and their studios are unknowledgeable about tattoo and that, “it’s another way for the government to make money off people. It’s a way to put their hands in another till.” The issue here is that tattooists like Robson and Knopp are not interested in taking part in anything that is regulated by the government because they wish to maintain part of a thriving outsider industry. By such standards, it makes sense to feel that any government involvement within their craft would corrupt the world in which they thrive. Maybe everything just works best when everyone sticks to what they know.

This would seem to be the best solution if only it weren’t for one major issue: the governing bodies take it upon themselves to do what they feel is best. In a private context this is perhaps more avoidable and manageable, but when working with the public it is far more difficult of an issue. If the government truly wants to regulate tattoo and even if this is completely a ploy for financial gain, then it is unavoidable, just as taxes are unavoidable. At the same time, however, criticism of regulation does demand an answer to issues that might not be explored were there no opposition whatsoever to begin with. It also creates room in which tattooists might take the time to actively explore their own roles in the entire process of government licensing and regulation over tattoo.
Hawaiian tattooist Tricia Allen knows all about exploring such roles. Allen, who received her master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in 1992 and who wrote her master’s thesis on the early practice of tattooing in the Marquesas islands, has tattooed over 8,000 members of the Polynesian community. On July 1, 2009, Hawaii introduced new tattoo regulations, which Allen worked to amend, writing a bill and a companion bill that was sent to the United States Senate. Her efforts brought her into close contact with the state of Hawaii’s Department of Health, creating a strong relationship in which the DOH was willing to take into consideration the thoughts of the Hawaiian tattoo community on the issues that ultimately affected them and their work. Through phone surveys aimed specifically at Hawaiian tattooists as well as direct communication with the tattooists she knew, Allen helped to create one of the first instances in the United States where tattooists worked alongside the Department of Health to build and better structure tattoo regulations. Her success with this issue provided an understandable source of pride over proving that tattooists and their relevant governing bodies could work together to make changes that benefit the government, the tattooists themselves and the tattooist’s prospective clients.

Such an example of a tattooist working alongside health authorities might seem like a daunting step toward altering the disagreeable aspects of the current state of tattoo regulation, but it’s only through a collectively raised effort that anything can change, just as it’s only through a collectively raised effort that tattooists can hold on to and better control what is rightfully their craft/art form.
Yet despite the best intentions of dedicated tattooists like Tricia Allen, it’s a mistake to assume that government sanctioned licensing and regulation of tattooists is somehow providing a utopian solution to the problems that can all too often occur in the name of tattoo. The rate at which unlicensed and untrained scratchers are illegally tattooing underage clients is growing as a result of readily available and very cheap tattoo kits from the internet. Tattoo parties, in which groups of underage people get together in a home and are tattooed by a scratcher are becoming increasingly popular in the United Kingdom. In August of 2011, three illegal tattooists were arrested in Edinburgh and charged for tattooing minors. This incident only serves to further stoke the fires of a trend that continues to grow in Edinburgh. In 2007, there were only two incidents of scratchers being charged under the Tattooing of Minors Act 1969, and in 2008-9, there were only a total of three. In 2009-10, these numbers continued to rise, but marginally so, evidenced by the six illegal tattooing infractions of that time period. But as of 2011, there have been 16 cases already and that number looks set to grow. Where does regulation enter into this respect?

At a stage where underage tattoo grows and online sales of sketchy tattoo equipment seemingly booms, the question needs to be asked as to whether or not the battle of underage tattoo and easily procured equipment for scratchers is a battle that governments must face and account for on their own. This is not something that tattooists can or should have to work on preventing, though it certainly must be tackled head on. The real problem begins (and is currently happening), when the issue of DIY tattoo equipment sold on the internet or the issue of tattoo parties are shoved into the realm of regulated tattooists by the powers that be, as though those issues were one and the same as professional tattooists being licensed and regulated. As Edinburgh’s environment leader, Councillor Robert Aldridge said after the most recent arrests of three illegal tattooists: “The council views the tattooing of under-18s as a very serious matter and it is made clear to licensed operators that they could face having their licence revoked if found guilty of such an offence.” Yet no mention was made of the issue that is far greater and which continually seems to be ignored: the ease with which DIY tattoo kits are currently procured. If issues such as these are continually shoved into the realm of tattoo regulation, then the task of making a distinction between government’s responsibility and tattoo’s responsibility becomes progressively cloudier in the eyes of those in power. The solution to this, it would seem, is for tattooists to take back what is theirs and make that distinction prominent.

If the issue is put into plain black and white terms, the question that ultimately needs to be asked is whether or not tattoo regulation is making any difference at all. For those artists who feel that regulation is a cash grab and a way for the government to stick their noses where they don’t belong, regulation makes all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, that difference is not a welcome one. For others like tattooists who support legislation and regulation as well as the general public, regulation while far from flawless, does seem to do its fair share of good. Given the option, it’s safe to suggest that most people would rather be tattooed by an artist who is licensed and whose studio is regularly inspected and fully regulated.  

In August 2011, a self-taught and unlicensed tattooist called Joseph Vasarhelyi was charged in Darlington for not being a registered tattooist, for purchasing his equipment online, and because his knowledge of sterilisation procedures was not sufficient enough to operate a legitimate business. Vasarhelyi had not been caught tattooing human beings, but simply practicing on pig-skin. If regulation and an awareness by the authorities on these matters can dissuade or make life generally more difficult for shady tattooists, then even a moderate amount of such an effort surely can’t be a bad thing. One less scratcher or corner cutting tattooist in operation is a start toward something that can still be salvaged, reclaimed and strengthened, if only the desire is there to do so.


Text: Mike Jones