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Oklahoma Tattoo Artists Ready To Make Their Mark

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The stain is finally gone from tattoo artist Brandon Mull's profession.

Tattooing has been banned in Oklahoma for more than four decades. But artists like Mull have applied their body art in commercial shops that defied state law and operated without health rules to protect their customers and themselves from bloodborne diseases like hepatitis and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

That will begin to change this week when Gov. Brad Henry is expected to sign legislation that eliminates Oklahoma's distinction as the only state in the nation to prohibit tattooing and authorizes them under a regulatory system for tattoo artists and parlors.

``It's about time,'' said Mull, a tattoo artist at Just Another Hole Body Arts Studio in Broken Arrow and part a vocal group of activists who have called on state lawmakers to license their profession.

``It's something I've wanted to happen for 10 years and it's actually happening. I feel like I'm in a dream,'' Mull said.

Oklahoma banned tattooing in 1963 and attempts to lift it over the past decade have been opposed on health and safety as well as moral grounds. Oklahoma has licensed and regulated body piercing since 1999 and regulations for tattoo artists and parlors will be very similar to those for body piercing, state health officials said.

``It had to happen eventually,'' said Jason King, a body piercing artist who is building a tattoo parlor next door to his Oklahoma City body piercing shop. ``It's not an issue of right and wrong. It's an issue of health and safety.''

King and other professionals have been working with the state Department of Health for the past year to develop a set of health, safety and sanitation guidelines that tattoo artists must comply with before they are licensed in the state.

``People who do nails have to have a certain amount of education but people who make holes in other people don't. I find that ludicrous,'' King said. ``Tattooing needed to be regulated in our state.''

The rules will resemble guidelines in Missouri, which has about 250 licensed tattoo parlors, and Kansas, which has fewer than 100.

Ted Evans, chief of consumer health services for the Health Department, said tattooing guidelines are expected to be in place by the bill's Nov. 1 effective date.

``We need to make sure all of these people are knowledgeable'' to reduce the risk of spreading infection, Evans said.

They will require an apprenticeship program in which budding artists must work with licensed professionals before they are eligible to be licensed themselves, King said.

``That's the way it should be,'' Mull said. ``To be a tattoo artist anywhere in the world, that's what you do.''

It will also tighten loopholes in existing body piercing regulations regarding parental consent and other issues. State law requires parents to give their permission and be present during a body piercing procedure on anyone under 18.

The new tattoo law prohibits anyone under 18 and anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol from getting a tattoo.

Oklahoma became the only state to outlaw tattooing when South Carolina legalized the practice in 2004. But regulations were not in place until two months ago, when the first legal tattoo was applied in the state.

Without guidelines, professional tattoo artists in Oklahoma said they have tried to regulate themselves using health and safety guidelines in other states.

Oklahoma health officials have issued licenses to 37 body piercing parlors and 53 artists, according to state records. A team of five inspectors have conducted 46 inspections over the past year and issued two citations.

``We've had an instance here and there where there was a teenager piercing people from his school in his garage,'' Evans said.

A tattoo licensing bill passed by a House committee last year never got a hearing in the full House. But the issue received a boost when it was endorsed by the Department of Health, which expressed concern about an increase in hepatitis infections related to unsanitary tattooing practices.

``If you have something that's illegal, there's a lot of underground activity,'' Evans said.

Between 2000 and 2003, there was a 78 percent increase in new hepatitis C infections and 34 percent of the people infected reported they had a tattoo, according to the Health Department.

In 2004, an investigation into an outbreak of hepatitis B in LeFlore County revealed a potential link to home tattooing practices. The same year, emergency workers in Atoka County reported antibiotic-resistant skin infections in four patients with recent nonprofessional tattoos.

In spite of the state's ban on tattoos, many tattoo artists have operated in the open and even advertised their services.

Heightened interest in the issue led to a series of citations to tattoo artists in recent months. The charge is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and possible jail time.

``There's a lot of artists in this state who've gone through that. It's just a little bit ridiculous,'' Mull said.

Tattoo artists believe Oklahoma's ban was rendered largely ineffective in 2004 when charges of unlawful tattooing in Tulsa County were dismissed against two artists, including Mull.

The state law that bans tattooing defines a tattoo as ``a permanent indelible mark'' created by a needle that is visible on the skin. Defense attorneys argued that tattoos can be removed through laser surgery and other techniques, and are not permanent.

Many tattoo parlors in the state advertise tattoo removal.
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