Tattoo craze stirs concern about public health

States struggle to find the balance between regulation and freedom of expression.

Julia Roberts has one.

So did Winston Churchill's mother.

Even Barbie had one (that is, until parents got wind of it).

Tattoos are turning up everywhere. What was once confined to the biceps of salty sailors and leather-clad bikers is now peeking out from under bankers' suits, pro jerseys, and Oscar gowns. Some say the number of Americans sporting tattoos is as high as 15 percent.

As tattooing and other types of body art - piercing, scarification, branding - become more mainstream and more popular, officials in states and cities across the US are scrutinizing shops that perform such services.

Most states are crying, "stricter regulations." Alaska, for one, last week got a bill to let the state regulate and inspect tattoo and body-piercing shops. In Colorado, a bill to outlaw tattooing or piercing anyone under 18 without a parent's permission is moving through the legislature.

A few states - such as Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and South Carolina - still outlaw tattooing. Now, Massachusetts is a test of states' ability to deny the practice in this age of acceptance.

Assault on tattoo ban

The 38-year ban here is being bombarded on all sides. Some lawmakers are looking to legalize tattooing. And the American Civil Liberties Union has brought a lawsuit on behalf of two Martha's Vineyard tattoo artists, who also want tattooing to be legal.

"I'm not a fan of tattoos," says state Rep. David Tuttle, who introduced the House bill. "But there's a tremendous underground market in tattooing here. Why not legalize it, regulate it, and ensure it's done properly?"

Mr. Tuttle's bill would legalize tattooing for anyone 18 or older and would also regulate the body-piercing business. This would safeguard public health better than an "arcane" law, he says.

While Tuttle's daughter is still only a toddler, he knows that teenage girls are one of the fastest-growing groups sporting ankle tattoos, navel rings, and pierced tongues. "If my daughter turns 18 and decides she wants a tattoo, I want her to get it done in a facility that is clean and regularly inspected," he says.

Public health is the same plea the state attorney general makes when arguing to keep the ban. Massachusetts outlawed tattooing in 1962 after a hepatitis scare, and officials still point to problems with tainted needles and infections from dyes. The US Food and Drug Administration claims none of the dyes used in tattooing is safe, says Edward DeAngelo, an assistant attorney general arguing to keep the ban.

But the state's own Nancy Ridley, who works at the Department of Public Health, says it would be safer to legalize - and regulate - tattooing than to perpetuate the underground market.

As the legislature debates tattooing, Tuttle frets that time is of the essence. A Superior Court judge has already heard a case concerning the tattoo ban - and could rule to allow the practice before Massachusetts lawmakers have any regulations in place.

The case turns on the constitutional issue of free speech, with the ACLU claiming tattooing is protected under the First Amendment and, thus, cannot be stifled by state law.

"People who have tattoos use their bodies as billboards to express their views to the world: who they love, who they hate,... their religious beliefs, their political beliefs," says Harvey Schwartz, a Boston lawyer who argued the case for the ACLU. Such tattooed messages should have the same protections as other art forms, he says.

This winter, body art got a stamp of legitimacy from the American Museum of Natural History with the opening of "Body Art: Marks of Identity." The exhibit, which runs through May, includes everything from tattooing to Chinese foot binding to Indian skull stretching.

Underground artist

For Stephen Lanphear, one of the artists who brought the lawsuit, tattooing is all about communication. He moved from Martha's Vineyard to New York to work in a tattoo parlor, but is trying to change Massachusetts' law so he can return.

"Tattooing is a way of life for me, a way of expressing myself," says Mr. Lanphear, a towering man adorned with dozens of silver hoops and studs.

A tattoo of a colorful bird flies around his neck, and his back is covered with a depiction of a fierce Tibetan Mahakala mask with sharp teeth.

He says if the Massachusetts law is not changed, he will come back and work underground. As for the meaning behind the mask: "It's deep," is all he will say.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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