Pigmentation | Wrinkles | Acne Scars | Tattoos

Tattoo industry struggles with licensing and regulation

You wouldn't go to your neighbor for heart surgery, your roommate's buddy Pete to defend you in court, or "that guy that your friend knows" for a root canal – so why would you take your chances when it's time to choose your tattoo artist? Licensing and regulation are essential parts of how we make our decisions when it comes time to seek out professionals for their services, especially those that can have a significant impact on some part of our lives.

However, in spite of this, the tattoo industry has up to this point eluded an overarching governing body. Lawyers have the Bar Association and doctors have the American Medical Association as signposts of quality and assurances of oversight, but even some of the most reputable tattoo parlors have little more than word of mouth and their reputation to guide consumers. Unfortunately, diving into the tattoo process blind is somewhat akin to playing Russian Roulette with a tattoo gun, and few things can inspire deep-seated tattoo regret like finding yourself in the chair of the wrong practitioner. 

The danger of scratchers
Unfortunately for consumers and tattoo artists alike, the industry is no stranger to its own brand of seedy copycats and hacks –  the back alley chop shop proprietors of tattooing. In the world of body art, they're commonly referred to as scratchers, and it is a well-deserved moniker. These individuals are not only unlicensed and uncertified in the basic health training required by professional artists, but more often than not they are also unskilled and working with vastly inferior equipment and materials. 

The risks associated with tattoos performed by unlicensed individuals are myriad, from poor work to infection to serious injury. Many scratchers leap even farther over the line of the law and give tattoos to minors, The State, a South Carolina-based publication, reported. 

Unfortunately, the tenuous relationship many states have with the practice of tattooing is one of the main factors keeping these scratchers in business. South Carolina, for example, outlawed the practice until 2004, with many other states and major cities implementing similar control measures in the late '90s or early into the 21st century. Another thing driving minors to unlicensed tattooists is cost – tattooing, especially for larger and more intricate pieces, can be an expensive process, and many teens are loathe to shell out the cash. However, tattooing perhaps more than any other instance is strictly governed by the maxim "you get what you pay for" – and kids getting unlicensed tattoos in basements for pocket change more often than not find themselves subject to complications and shifting their research to tattoo removal.

Regulation roadblocks
The key thing that will help prevent the spread of these unlicensed tattooists is a firm body of licensing and regulation. While almost all states require practicing artists to go through some sort of licensing procedure, there is still the lack of a central governing body and an overall lackadaisical legislative attitude toward the industry. Current regulations commonly dictate fairly slim requirements – the practitioner must be of the age of majority, and must have received blood-borne pathogen training. Typically, a licensing fee is also paid to the municipal governing body.

Of course, managing and administering the regulatory process isn't as simple as it should be on paper, largely due to the fact that there are competing interests at stake. As one Australia-based artist told The Morning Bulletin, there is often a conflation between health concerns and business concerns, since tattooing technically falls into both categories – and many initiatives that impact licensing are rooted in controlling business practices more than ensuring that best health practices are being implemented.

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