City Desk

Ink Progress: D.C. Wants New Tattoo Regulations. Bollocks.

Ink Progress: D.C. Wants to Regulate Tattoos

Paul Roe is staring at the naked back of a customer, admiring his colleague’s work. “The palate matches her complexion,” Roe tells fellow tattoo artist Aaron Trimiar of his just-completed design, a floral pattern stretching from the middle of the customer’s back to her shoulder blade. “She can wear anything with this and it will work.”

Britishink, Roe’s unmarked, appointment-only tattoo studio above a pet store on H Street NE, is a picture of strict self-regulation, the realm of an artist who takes his work seriously enough to describe it using terms like “tradition,” “rank,” and “respect.” Idle in the waiting room, and you’ll see the vintage tattooing equipment Roe keeps in a museum-like glass case. This isn’t the sort of place where you’ll get a tattoo of barbed wire tattooed around your biceps or “serenity” written in Chinese characters on your back. Roe and his two fellow artists only produce custom tattoos either of their own making or drawn from a customer’s imagination.

The shop, which Roe first opened in Brookland in 1998, seems to be doing fine in D.C., where tattooing and body piercing remained essentially unregulated, unlike just about every state in the union. Nevertheless, for the last nine years Roe has been agitating the District government to regulate him.

Last month, the city finally obliged him. But ask Roe about the 66 pages of regulations that the D.C. Department of Health proposed for tattoo artists and body piercers, and he turns apoplectic. Angling his lanky frame forward for effect and deploying a sneer that looks like it’s modeled after Johnny Rotten’s, Roe calls the new rules “unconstitutional,” “ridiculous,” and “dross.”

Roe says he wants to convince regulators that in their efforts to supervise D.C.’s tattoo industry—by, most noxiously, requiring a 24-hour waiting period—they will only marginalize the many D.C. residents with ink on their skins.

If Roe fails, he says, he’ll have to do something more dramatic to make his point: tattoo someone on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

 * * *

At the moment, all tattoo artists and body piercers need to operate in D.C. is a business license. While dance therapists and barbers have long been licensed and regulated, D.C. has maintained an oddly libertarian stance toward a craft that involves very sharp needles.

None of this would have mattered to Roe when he first came to D.C. in 1994, though. After moving from New York to be with his wife, the British native worked as head waiter and assistant sommelier at the ritzy, now-shuttered Lespinasse, which was once D.C.’s most expensive restaurant. It was a natural fit: Roe spent time growing up in the south of France, where he learned the value of fine food and wine, and later found that well-heeled diners were easily wooed by a tux and a British accent.

On his way to work one day, Roe dropped into a local tattoo shop with a design he’d made himself. The way he tells it, the head artist was impressed by Roe’s work—he went to art school in London—and offered to buy the design from him. Later, he took on Roe as an apprentice.

Roe’s next stop was a tattoo parlor on Barracks Row, but after climbing rents in the revitalizing neighborhood displaced his employer, he decided to go it alone. In 1998, he opened up Britishink in Brookland, where he now lives, and focused on custom-only work.

Most of Roe’s fellow shop owners didn’t complain about the lack of regulations. In an industry so reliant on reputation and word of mouth, every artist had a built-in incentive to practice the craft safely. Roe saw that freedom as coming with a price: For every professional dedicated to tattooing safely, there were posers with no inclination to follow suit.

“This is the capital city, this is the pinnacle of the free world and democracy, and there was nothing regulating this ancient profession. So what we saw around us were pop-up shops, tattoo parties, stick-and-poke parties being thrown by teenagers, people who buy kits off of eBay and Craigslist,” Roe says.

Sensible regulations, Roe says, wouldn’t force established tattoo artists to do more than they already did, and they would offer city officials a tool to use against rogue operators. Additionally, rules would give a measure of comfort to customers who, he says, were usually surprised to hear that tattooing in D.C. was unregulated.

Roe pushed the issue with the Department of Health, using Virginia and Maryland as models of simple and straightforward regulations that borrowed from accepted industry standards. “Regulation and criminal penalties don’t apply to professionals, because they’re doing what’s required to be done every day. Regulation and criminal penalties is for everyone else,” he says, many of whom “ruin many a piece of damn fine skin” with their lack of experience.

Drafts of proposed regulations were tossed around in the mid-2000s, but after they went nowhere, Roe lost interest. “Six years on, after badgering the health department and being told that ‘We don’t have the administrative budget for this program,’ I gave up,” he says. After four years in Brookland, he moved his shop to H Street and took on two more artists.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the D.C. Council finally debated a new bill that would establish a regulatory framework for tattoo artists and body piercers. In a December hearing, Roe and other artists laid out the basics of what they wanted to see in any adopted rules: simple standards for health and safety, licensing requirements including apprenticeships, and a spot on the Board of Barber and Cosmetology, which would be charged with enforcing any rules.

The bill passed in mid-2012, and Roe was confident that his long-time engagement with the issue would pay off with the kind of regulations he wanted. He was wrong.

 * * *

On Sept. 6, the Department of Health quietly dropped its proposed regulations into the D.C. Register. There were plenty of rules that Roe and other artists were already adhering to—single-use needles, thorough sterilization, latex gloves, training for dealing with blood-borne pathogens—and something that he had specifically advocated for: a ban on tattooing anyone under 18. For Roe, a tattoo is a rite of passage, a “transition between childhood and adulthood and can only be administered by one adult to another adult.” (To be fair, Roe got his first tattoo a month shy of his own 18th birthday.)

To Roe’s eyes, however, everything else was a mishmash of regulatory burdens and nonsensical restrictions. The most glaring was the requirement that customers wait 24 hours between requesting a tattoo or body piercing and actually getting it. While the rest of the regulations seemed to be aimed at ensuring the health and safety of the customer, the proposed waiting period appeared to be more concerned with controlling their impulses.

“We’re making sure when that decision is made that you’re in the right frame of mind, and you don’t wake up in the morning...saying, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’” Department of Health spokeswoman Najma Roberts told the Washington Post. (The rules include a separate provision prohibiting tattooing or piercing someone under the influence.)

Roe is quick to point out that few jurisdictions across the country have waiting periods. (Greenwich Township, N.J., population 4,899, imposes a 48-hour wait.) While that rule wouldn’t affect his business—he doesn’t take walk-ins, after all—the mere idea of it strikes him as a nanny state gone wild.

“What we’re talking about here, and historically this has been the case, when the tattooed population is marginalized, there is social engineering happening,” Roe says. “‘Those tattooed people, they need time to think about it.’ Why? How are you trying to steer the mentality of the residents of this city?”

Roe says the rules would also require him to deny service to customers with communicable diseases like HIV, a possible violation of federal law, and say nothing about training or apprenticeships, which he strongly favors.

All told, Roe says, there isn’t much in those 66 pages that he would keep or isn’t willing to fight. “What we have right now is a framework. Twenty percent of it is applicable. Eighty percent of it is dross and needs to be thrown out,” he says.

 * * *

Roe may be angry, but he’s also confident that the proposed rules won’t come to pass. After a first round of public comments closes in early October, the Department of Health will make changes before eventually submitting the rules to the D.C. Council for final approval. Until that happens, Roe says he’ll do what he did initially—stay engaged.

“What they’ve written won’t fly,” Roe says. “It’s legally unsound. What we need to focus on is the process, and the process is long and drawn out. As long as we can act within the defined process, the product should be amicable to all parties concerned. Very simple, logical rules—everybody wins.”

He may already be winning. Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who oversees the council’s health committee and initially supported the 24-hour waiting period, says her views are evolving. “I’ve heard loud and clear from tattoo parlors and clients, and their thinking is that it’s a little ridiculous,” she says. “If it has no health ramifications, I can’t see us intervening.”

Roe is also angling for a seat on the Board of Barber and Cosmetology, and believes that there are enough high-powered people with tattoos out there to quietly impress upon legislators that while regulations may be a good idea, overregulation isn’t. One of them, he notes, is a head of litigation at a powerhouse law firm that once brought Kenneth Starr on board to fight a tattooing ban in South Carolina.

The tattooed, Roe says, are less a subculture than many in officialdom may think. “Underneath the pinstripe, those are my clients, and they are politicians, policemen, high-ranking military officials, government officials, lobbyists, students, artists, doctors, dentists, and major surgeons,” he says. “You’re marginalizing the tattooed. Well, guess what? That’s all of us. You can’t marginalize all of us.”

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Comments

  1. #1

    This is all his dumb ass fault and he is hurting an industry that didn't need it. He talks about a stigma but he has helped to create it. Thr majority of artists in the city follow the rules and didn't need more paperwork and expenses.

    I wish his ass would have stayed in NY. Folks like him are the Reason that Brookland is becoming a yuppie enclave that the folks from this town hate. As for putting his ass on the boatd, I will do everything in my power to keep his ass off of it.

    From the guy with four tattoos under my tailored fit suit....

  2. #2

    @political hack, wow, you have four tattoos? you must be an expert! Did you get all of them at the same place? Or have you traveled the country and discovered what many of us know, that every shop is different and that areas without clear legislation and requiring blood borne pathogen instructions on a regular basis can be very dangerous, health wise. That drop of blood on the seat or the counter could actually kill you, but maybe your "tailored fit suit" will protect you.

    It is not a stigma to work to protect your clients or your coworkers. It is not a stigma to want verifiable standard regulations so that the kids wanting to be the next tattoo artist star knows exactly what he must do to get there. It is not a stigma to want clear regulations on education, both initial and ongoing.

    And it certainly is not a stigma for a client to walk into a shop, see the Health Department license on the wall and be confident that the person bloodying up your skin is working in a clean and safe manner.

    But, that's just me I guess. I've had 10 artists (and one hack) decorate my body over the years and I much prefer a licensed artist over someone I have to teach from the chair to not touch that phone with his gloved hand and then touch my open skin.

  3. #3

    He asks the city for Nanny State Red Tape in order to ultimately eliminate competition (often it is under the guise of "safety") and in return faces "Too much Nanny State" and stands to lose customers. Be careful what you wish for.

  4. #4

    Well said Kat!

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