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D.C. Tattoo Artists Say New Regulations Could Drive Them Out Of Business

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Tattooing and piercing is unregulated in D.C., but a year-long process to change that has produced only rancor.
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Tattooing and piercing is unregulated in D.C., but a year-long process to change that has produced only rancor.

D.C. remains one of the last places in the country where tattoo artists and body piercers remain wholly unregulated, but a year-long attempt to change that has drawn complaints from practitioners that the city is trying to drive them out of business.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Department of Health published a second draft of proposed regulations that would apply to tattoo artists and body piercers, covering everything from the type of equipment they can use to what they need to do to ensure that customers' healths are protected.

The rules come almost a year after a first draft drew swift condemnation from tattoo artists and body piercers for including a 24-waiting period between when a tattoo or piercing was requested and when it could be conducted; the rules also included a ban on tattoos or piercings for residents with HIV/AIDS, a possible violation of federal law.

And though those provisions were knocked out of the second draft, tattoo artists in particular are complaining that the new rules are contradictory, unenforceable and overly restrictive.

"We need regulation, we will have regulation. It is Washington, D.C., it is the capital city of the most powerful nation on the planet, and yet they’re looking at regulating a business… as though it’s 1890. I don’t understand," says Paul Roe, owner of Britishink Tattoos on H Street NE and a member of the D.C. Board of Barber and Cosmetology, which will be responsible for licensing tattoo artists and body piercers.

Roe and other artists say that certain provisions of the proposed rules would prohibit them from doing business altogether, including a requirement that they use hollow needles, which do not exist in tattooing, and that their suppliers — for everything from ink and needles to gloves and cleaning equipment — be registered with the city.

"There is no other business in the District of Columbia where the government mandates where you can buy your supplies from. This is overreaching and over-burdensome to the business owner. I use 15 to 150 supplies a year, and they’re global. Do they all have to register with the Department of Health? Yes," says Roe.

He also says that the rules would ban tattooing conventions in the city and require tattoo parlors to post health notifications they say are misleading. Additionally, he says, while the rules allow someone under the age of 18 to get their ears pierced, they also completely prohibit anyone under that age of entering a tattoo parlor or body piercing store.

In 2012, the D.C. Council passed a bill mandating that tattoo artists and body piercers be regulated, splitting the responsibility between the Department of Health and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Roe was appointed to the Board of Barber and Cosmetology, which falls under DCRA, to help draft the regulations, though he says that the Department of Health never approached him or notified the board — which has created a subcommittee for body art — about the second draft of rules it was working on.

In an email, the Department of Health said that it used its in-house experts to draw up health and safety regulations, while the Board of Barber and Cosmetology will be responsible for creating a scheme under which tattoo artists and body piercers are licensed.

Still, Roe believes that the Department of Health is not reaching out to tattoo artists or body piercers — which he says already follow strict industry standards governing health and safety — to help draft workable regulations.

“I firmly believe that there is some form of prejudice against the modified community in structuring regulations that are so unobtainable in the real world. You cannot enforce these. They almost cancel themselves out," he says.

The Department of Health did not provide answers to multiple written questions regarding how the rules were written or if they would be changed, nor did it make a spokesperson available to speak about them. A coalition of tattoo artists isn't taking any chances, though, and started a petition asking that the rules be scrapped before they can take effect later this month.

“We understand the need to regulate, we understand the booming business, we understand, most importantly, the health and safety of the general public and the practitioners. Regulation sets a standard, a social standard by which Joe Public can walk into a shop and understand that the service provided there is of a certain technical ability," says Roe.

Still, he wants the rules to be what he says they currently are not: "Clear, concise and simple."

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