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It Was Legal to Tattoo This 12-Year-Old, But Was it Right?

This week Larry Ray Jackson, a tattooer from West Virginia, ignited a fierce debate among the tattoo community over whether or not it is ethical to tattoo a minor. A picture posted to Jackson's Facebook page showed the tattoo artist standing next to a 12-year-old boy showing off a brand new skull tattoo on his upper arm. As the negative comments began pouring in Jackson swiftly removed the photo from his page but the damage had already been done as tattoo fans and artists alike started to call for Jackson’s head.

It was perfectly legal for Jackson to do the tattoo as West Virginia law allows the tattooing of minors as long as there is parental consent, so the question isn’t if Jackson had the right to tattoo the boy but whether or not he should have tattooed him. When I was 12 I probably would have opted for a tattoo of some pogs or a portrait of this guy, and that’s why I’m glad that I didn’t make any permanent life decisions back then. And that’s the very reason why people were so upset by the picture—people know that they were idiots at that age and they don’t want to be haunted by any sort of decision they would have made back then. And, more importantly, they don’t want this kid to be forced to live with a bad decision that was only possible because of adults who enabled him.

After sorting through all of the hot takes on Jackson’s Facebook—they range from general concern to blind rage with everything in between—we decided that we needed to hear the other side of the story and we gave Jackson a call.

Not surprisingly Jackson was on the defensive after the bashing he had taken on social media for the past 24 hours; the actual surprise was that he seemed completely oblivious to why people would react in the way they did. “I thought it was nice to post the picture on there because he’s standing there so proud,” Jackson said. “And then everyone is wanting to bash. People are reacting like I molested the kid.”

“In some states you gotta be 18, but here in West Virginia it don’t matter as long as the parents sign,” Jackson told us. “I mean, I didn’t break no laws. If he didn’t get it at the shop he’d probably get it at his buddy’s house in a garage or down in a basement. He’d get hamburgered up.”

In many places having a 12-year-old come into the shop looking for a tattoo would be a very notable event. They way Jackson tell it this was just like any other day.

“His aunt been coming in for a little while to get tattoos and she told him if he kept his grades up and stuff, like he promised, that he could get a tattoo,” Jackson told us. “Report cards came in and his sister got tattooed and he got one. He’s 12.”

Perhaps the reason that the experienced seemed so mundane is that this wasn’t even the boy’s first tattoo. If you take a close look at the picture above you can see a second piece of ink on his back. “I done both of them,” Jackson said. “And probably next week he’ll come in for another one after all this. If he wants them and his parents say that it’s alright who am I do say no?”

Damian Ferek, owner of Stick Tattoos in Morgantown, W.V., believes that it’s the duty of the artist to act responsibly. “We do have a shop policy that says no one under the age of 15, even with parental consent,” Ferek explained via email. “We, as artists, still reserve the right to refuse any tattoo on a minor that we feel is inappropriate.”

Since our offices are located in New York City and we had never really heard of someone so young getting a tattoo, at least not legally, we were curious about how prevalent the practice was.

“It is very rare that we have someone younger than 15 come to our shop for a tattoo,” Damian Ferek, owner of Morgantown’s Stick Tattoos, said. “We have seen work done on younger teens looking for help or coverups, which only enforces why we have a shop age guideline (15) and use our instincts for any other minors.”

People all over the world have been sounding off about Jackson’s decision to tattoo the child with the vast majority believing that 12-years-old is far too young to be inked. And while Jackson was breaching all professional ethics in the minds of many by agreeing to do the tattoo, there were some lines that he wouldn’t cross. What if the boy had asked for knuckle tattoos? “I wouldn’t have done that, no, I definitely wouldn’t have done that,” Jackson said. “I don’t tattoo hands or faces, I never have.

A screenshot of the original post and some of the backlash.

A screenshot of the original post and some of the backlash.

It is the reaction of others that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story. It’s amazing how quickly people were up in arms about the picture and sharing it all over social media. Within hours efforts were being organized to shut down Jackson’s livelihood as a tattooer despite his actions being 100% legal. The vitriol directed towards Jackson was one thing, “I’m the biggest piece of shit in the world! There’s lots of them on [Facebook] that say I need my hands broke and stuff,” Jackson said. Amid all the negativity directed towards Jackson some people turned their vitriol to the boy.

“What was hurtful was that everyone was so worried about this kid’s tattoo,” Jackson explained. “But halfway through the day they’re sitting there making fat jokes about the kid. That didn’t have nothing to do with his tattoo.

Even the people who feel like Jackson did something very wrong end up mocking a child, and once you've crossed that line you have completely lost the moral high ground. That's why this whole mess feels so gross. There are no winners here. Jackson has probably had his career completely ruined by the notoriety he obtained, the kid will live the rest of his life with a horrible tattoo that was more than likely based off of a silly temporary tattoo and many of the people who called out Jackson will have to live with the guilt that they essentially cyber-bullied a 12-year-old.

There's a reason that 18 is the age when you essentially become an adult. It is at that age that our society believes that you are most fit to make important decisions on your own; it is at 18 that you can vote, join the military, and represent yourself legally on your own. Getting a tattoo is a life decision that should be treated with a similar amount of reverence and respect. Trust us, waiting a couple of extra years is a heck of a lot better than living with a horrible tattoo and going through the eventual laser removal.