Is the DC Government Trying to Ban Tattooing?

In the last couple of decades tattooing has gone from a much-maligned profession on the fringes of society to a multi-billion dollar industry. Some may think that the proliferation of celebrities sporting ink and reality TV shows are the reason for this surge of popularity—and they definitely have played an important role—but they don’t provide the full explanation. The most important factor is far less sexy—legislation.

Over the years the old, draconian laws that were created when tattooing was more taboo have been eliminated in most parts of the United States. Legislation that protects both the tattooing businesses and the consumers has been put in their place. Well-crafted laws have given tattooists the freedom to perform their craft without looking over their shoulder and being afraid of being shut down. On the flip side, consumers know that shops are regulated and that they will be able to walk into a shop and be tattooed in the safest possible way.

In 2012, the Washington DC Health Department recognized that tattooing was completely unregulated and they set forth an effort to remedy that situation. After a year of contemplation the first draft of proposed regulations was announced in September of 2013. It was seen as overreaching and untenable to the body art community. In the year since they were proposed the local government and body art professionals have clashed as they try to reach some sort of compromise.

In order to understand what exactly is going on within DC as a second round of proposed regulations has been released, we spoke with a representative of the DC Coalition of Professional Body Artists, the owner of Fatty’s Tattoos and Piercings, Fatty. When it comes to fighting for proper regulations this isn’t Fatty’s first rodeo; he went through a similar ordeal at his previous shop in Maryland.

“By the mid-90’s the state of Maryland was proposing some pretty overreaching body art regulations,” Fatty explains. “The whole tattoo community came together and formed a trade coalition and we were able to successfully defeat the proposed regulations. Not only that, but we were able to help with the passage of comprehensive body art regulations.”

When the DC Health Department first proposed their regulations last September the regulations included a 24-hour waiting period before receiving a tattoo, thus eliminating walk-ins.

“The proposed law would have required fully grown, consenting adults to come in and give us a 24-hour indication that they were wanting body art,” Fatty says. “That way they could go home, sober up, and think about their decision.”

The interior of Fatty's brand new shop in DC.

The interior of Fatty’s brand new shop in DC.

The proposed law would have also made it illegal for tattooists to take deposits when scheduling appointments, thus giving a customer little to no incentive to meet that appointment and putting the artists at risk of great financial loss. It seemed clear to many within the industry that the regulations were not intended to regulate body art as much as they were trying to push the industry out of the city.

“They proposed their first round of regulations with a 66-page, business busting, industry busting proposal,” Fatty recalls. “It would have put everybody out of business.”

Tattoo artists were not alone in their belief that the original proposal would have crippled their industry; the proposal was met with public outrage and the most egregious parts of the proposal were removed from the second draft of the law. Unfortunately, those were the only two things that changed in between the two proposals. After meeting with body artists in order to gain some insight into the industry, lawmakers decided to only remove the two portions of the proposal that received media attention. Many of the less publicized but still harmful provisions of the original draft remain intact.

Perhaps the most ire-inducing provision of the second proposal is a requirement that tattooists use hollow tipped needles. This would be a simple change for tattooists to make—if hollow tipped tattoo needles existed, that is.

“Uh… I don’t know how to do that,” Fatty says with a laugh. “In the 23 years that I’ve been tattooing this is new to me.”

While it’s easy to joke about how the proposal is out of touch with the realities of the body art industry one must consider how real of a threat these regulations would pose if they became law. If it becomes illegal to tattoo without hollow tipped needles it becomes illegal to tattoo. Period.

In the year since the first round of regulations were proposed members of the DC body art community have gone from being relative strangers to forming a tight knit group ready to fight for the survival of their industry. When the first round of proposals came down the community was blindsided by them; this time they are ready for battle.

“Enemies bring people together, if this is what it took that’s fine,” Fatty says. “The difference with this round is that we are already mobilized. We already have our people in place and we are already taking steps to defeat this second proposed bill. It’s not just that we are trying to defeat the bill; we are demanding that the DC Health Department allow experts to come in and help write this legislation.”

Fatty's pride in DC is evident in his custom shirt modeled after the DC flag.

Fatty’s pride in DC is evident in his custom shirt modeled after the DC flag.

Fatty and the rest of the body art community are confident that they will eventually be able to see eye-to-eye with the DC government and pass a set of simple, non-evasive regulations that will protect both tattoo shops and their customers. Earlier this month Fatty showed that he had the utmost faith that a compromise could be met when he opened up his second tattoo shop within the District. It might have been easier to retreat across the Potomac and open up in Virginia or head north to Maryland where the future of the industry is far more clear-cut but that would be giving up and that’s not who Fatty is. He’s been through this fight before and knows he can win, but not without a bit of help.

“I’m hoping that we can drum up some support throughout the body art community,” Fatty explains. “By support I don’t mean to send us money or anything stupid like that, all you have to do is send the DC Health Department a comment. You can also sign our Change.org petition, it’s super easy.”

In areas of the country where the local government and the body art industry have been able to come together to create fair regulations business has thrived. It would be a shame to see a poorly constructed law shut down tattooing within Washington DC when all that was needed to create a successful set of regulations was a little bit of communication and an open mind.

Comments close on the proposal on August 23 so the time to show support is now. Comments for the DC Health Department can be left here. You can sign the Change.org petition by clicking on this link. If you want to learn more about what exactly the DC Coalition of Professional Body Artists is demanding you can read their statement here. 

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