Bill could end Oklahoma's 40 year-old ban on tattooing

Monday, February 9th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A bill filed in the Oklahoma Legislature could change a law that makes Oklahoma one of two states that outlaw tattooing.

That's good news for Scott Dees who spent a mild Wednesday afternoon filling in the dragon mask tattoo on his boss's chest at a Sapulpa tattoo parlor.

Dees works at Bennett's Tattooing and Body Piercing on Main Street in Sapulpa. The store sign advertises tattoos, mocking state law.

``It doesn't get more open than this,'' said owner David Bennett. ``Tattooing is not something that's in the closet and going to go away.''

Oklahoma Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, has introduced a bill that would legalize tattoos and put them under state regulation.

In South Carolina, Sen. Bill Mescher, R-Pinopolis, has fought 10 years for legalization and had half a dozen bills defeated.

This time, the traditional opposition voted for the bill, and it cleared the state Senate in early January. The bill awaits debate in the House.

``There should be no opposition of any significance,'' Mescher said. ``I have high hopes it's going to go through this time.''

But Oklahoma might be different than South Carolina, opponents of legalizing tattooing said.

Rep. Bill Graves, R-Oklahoma City, fears legalization will make tattooing more tempting and accessible: ``I think a lot of kids get tattoos and probably wish they hadn't later.''

Both states outlawed the practice in the 1960s, when most states outlawed tattooing because of hepatitis outbreaks.

The last attempt to repeal Oklahoma's 1963 ban _ a misdemeanor ``to tattoo or offer to tattoo any person'' _ failed four years ago.

The bill died when Rep. Fred Stanley, D-Madill, refused to hear it before his Public Health Committee.

``I think that's kind of where it would end up again,'' said Rep. Richard Phillips, R-Warr Acres. ``I think as legislators, we need to be bringing things to Oklahoma that improve Oklahoma. I'm not sure tattoo shops and tattooing will improve our way of life.''

Supporters of legalizing tattoos say making the practice illegal pushes tattooists underground and allows them to operate without strict health standards.

About a dozen people in Oklahoma City do underground tattoo work, and probably 75 or 80 more are just ``scratchers,'' said Jeremy Bateman, who has tattoos on his right arm and chest and runs Tiggers Body Art, an Oklahoma City piercing shop.

``A scratcher is a guy that's got a homemade gun that doesn't know what he's doing,'' Bateman said. ``You look at his work and say, 'I could have done a better job with a cheese grater and an ink pen.'''

Underground Oklahoma artists have been known to use tattoo needle guns made from a guitar E-string and a Walkman motor or even a pencil and sharpened staples.

``Legalization will not shut the underground shops down,'' Bennett said. ``There will always be your brother's cousin's friend who knows somebody that does tattoos. But legalization offers a choice of doing it in a sterile environment.''

Tulsa police said they investigate about two dozen complaints against tattooists every year. In Oklahoma City, police have had no formal investigations of tattooists in the recent past, Sgt. Gary Knight said.

The Oklahoma Health Department sees benefits to regulating tattoo parlors. The department has been regulating piercing parlors since 1999.

``If it's done properly, I don't believe we see any greater risk for safety than we do with body piercing,'' said Rocky McElvany, chief of the department's consumer health services division.

Nearly 401 diseases, including hepatitis, can be contracted from getting a tattoo.

Legalizing tattoos also could give Oklahoma an economic boost.

Thousands of people head across Oklahoma borders to towns such as Siloam Springs, Ark., and Gainesville, Texas, to get inked.

Larry Speegle, owner of Fantasy Tattoos and Body Piercing in Gainesville, said about 95 percent of his customers are from Oklahoma, which nets him about $800,000 a year.

Rep. Phillips said he doubts tattooing will bring much revenue after the costs of regulating a new industry.

Phillips said he doesn't mind that people are traveling to Texas for tattoos.

``Well, go to Texas. That's fine with me. At least it will give you 200 miles to think about it.''