Few Rules for Tattoo Parlors: State, cities don’t regulate health practices

By Theoden K. Janes

Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano says he won’t be getting a tattoo any time soon. But if he wanted to, he wouldn’t have to stray very far from work. That’s because five tattoo shops are less than a half-mile from his downtown office. The two that are farthest apart are separated by 1,800 feet.
These days, finding a place to get tattooed in Tempe is easier than finding a Starbucks (the city has six Starbucks and seven tattoo parlors). It’s a hot spot because of Arizona State University, but it’s also a hot-button issue because some shop owners fear over-saturation.
“You wouldn’t put four gas stations or four of the same restaurants all right next to each other,” said Mark Walters, owner of Living Canvas Tattoos, 946 S. Mill Ave. “I just think there’ll come a time when the city’s going to have to say stop.”
That may not be any time soon, though.
“The government doesn’t say what businesses should be where,” Giuliano said. “From a local-jurisdiction standpoint, our job is to make sure you have a legal use permit and you’re operating the business that you say you’re operating. If you’re doing that, go ahead and go into business.”
In Arizona, hairstylists must meet minimum qualifications for certification and face discipline for violating Board of Cosmetology rules, while tattoo shops most of which also do body piercing, have to police themselves.
The state and Maricopa County health departments? Neither have any regulations regarding tattooing. And the state’s current tattooing laws don’t go much further than saying a person must be at least 18 to be tattooed unless a parent or legal guardian is present.
“There still could be stronger legislation,” said Rep. Kathi Foster, D-Phoenix, who sponsored the original bill and unsuccessfully sought amendments in 1998.
The Yellow Pages for the metropolitan area list 51 telephone numbers under the heading
“Tattooing.” But when “underground” operations are factored in, the number doubles.
It’s all driving many shop owners crazy.
“Some politician’s daughter is going to go into one of these places and end up all scarred and damaged, and her daddy’s going to get mad. Then all hell’s going to break loose,” said Marc Lescarbeau, president of Body Art Tattoo in Mesa. “That’s unfortunately what it’s going to take.”
But while shop owners don’t mind the legislature stepping in, they want it to be reasonable.
They don’t want, say, a mandate that a doctor be on standby 24 hours a day.
“We don’t want overkill,” said Dick Goldman, owner of Blue Dragon Tattoo shops in Phoenix and Glendale. “A lot of it, too, just depends on the person running the tattoo shop or the tattoo artist,” he added. “If they care about their business and their customers, then they are going to regulate themselves. If they don’t care, then even passing laws isn’t going to do any good. Not unless somebody walks in and checks it.”
The lack of any sort of stamp of approval makes word of mouth very important to tattoo parlors. Otherwise, you can do nothing more than take a business at its word.
“Hospital Quality Sterilization,” is underlined in one ad in the Yellow Pages. Another promises “Totally Sterile Practice,” and yet another, “Always New Needles.”
Competition is fierce, the backbiting rampant.
“You’re going to find two types of people in this business,” said Seth Cunningham, an artist at Liquid Carma, which is virtually next door to Tattooed Planet on East University Drive in Tempe. “The type of person that doesn’t say anything at all and just goes about their business or the type of person that’s going to say everything they can to make you come to them. It’s pretty cutthroat.”
So much that a turf war is brewing in Tempe: Several shops are fighting to get Tattooed Planet, 204 E. University, and Mill Ave. Ink, 711 S. Mill Ave., shut down for operating without legal use permits.
The two have been sent notices but still can practice tattooing during the 30 days they have to apply for the proper permit, said Dave Christ, senior code inspector for the City of Tempe.
Sean Dowdell, owner of Club Tattoo (at 1212 E. Apache Blvd., less than two miles from the cluster of shops near ASU) and a leader of the fight, thinks it’s a ridiculous policy and an indication that the government needs to be more concerned about the health issues.
“They really don’t care,” Dowdell said. “I’ve been pushing legislation for six years, and the politicians don’t care.”