Illegal tattoo artists practice trade

Thursday, February 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Associated Press Writer

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- A tattoo artists drives three hours to Denton, Texas, every weekend so he can draw snakes, daisies and barbed wire on people.

He also does a thriving business in this college town, but here it's illegal.

Tattoos are the rage among 20-somethings across the nation, but the ancient art is still against the law in Oklahoma and South Carolina. A Massachusetts judge overturned the ban in that state in October, saying it violated constitutional rights to free expression.

"It's funny they just don't legalize it," the Norman tattoo artist said. "It's just the Bible Belt. They're afraid of change."

The 21-year-old man asked that his name not be used because he fears he would be arrested.

To avoid authorities, he and other so-called underground tattoo artists inject ink into the skin of Oklahomans in kitchens, garages and basements. They don't put advertisements in the newspaper, but word of their services spread through satisfied customers and fringe businesses like body-piercing studios.

They are sometimes called "scratchers" or "scratch artists."

Oklahoma tattoo artists have tried for years to make their profession legal. They have argued that state-regulated tattoo studios would be safer for the public.

Dozens of them, some decorated with elaborate body art and piercings, appeared before the Oklahoma House Public Health Committee last year, and tried in vain to get lawmakers to lift the law that's made tattooing taboo since 1963.

Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City, has filed a bill again this year that would legalize and regulate tattooing. He says there are four illegal tattoo shops within walking distance of the Capitol.

Lindley suspects some of the tattoo artists may not properly dispose of used needles as medical waste.

Regulating the trade would clean it up, he said.

"In the interest of public safety, this needs to be done," he said.

Lindley proposes a fine and jail time for someone who tattoos a minor. He also wants the state health department to inspect tattoo parlors and turn any violators over to the district attorney's office.

It's a felony to tattoo minors in Oklahoma, and a misdemeanor to tattoo adults. But the law is rarely enforced.

Gary Ackley, supervisor of the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office misdemeanor unit, says few illegal tattoo artists are ever arrested.

"It's kind of like fortune telling," he said. "No one is complaining about it."

Rep. Richard Phillips, R-Warr Acres, says the ban should stand.

He doesn't like tattoos and doesn't want to put the government in the position of regulating them.

"I don't want to drive up and down the thoroughfares and see tattoo shops," he said. "In Oklahoma, with our mindset for the most part, we don't need tattooing."

James McAusland of McAlester is also against tattoos, but he thinks the government should legalize and regulate the industry for health reasons. He contracted hepatitis B from a dirty needle in a Texas tattoo parlor.

Dr. Mike Crutcher, epidemiologist for the state health department, said HIV and hepatitis B and C, both of which can be fatal, can be transmitted through dirty needles.

"I'm not saying we ought to legalize tattooing, but if it's going to be done, it needs to be done appropriately," Crutcher said.

Only one type of tattooing is legal in the state, and that's the kind performed in a medical office.

The Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure regulates this kind of tattooing, called micropigmentation, often used by women who use tattoos as a type of permanent makeup.

Oklahoma City registered nurse Linda Lea successfully lobbied the Legislature last year to require that all makeup tattooists take a course at a vocational school. Students will learn by testing their electric tattoo pens on pigs' ears.

She wants to make sure the students practice medically safe procedures.

It is trickier to put a tattoo on someone's face than it is to put a tattoo in a less sensitive area.

"There are a lot more things to be concerned about than when you're just going to do a boat on somebody's bottom," she said.