Fiona Ma for State Assembly
News

New body art rules sought

For more than a decade, Riverside County officials hoped state lawmakers would approve rules regulating tattoo artists, piercers and other body art professionals.

So far, no luck.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a body art law in October, and similar legislation remains pending today.

Instead, the county is going it alone.

Local officials want the rules to help ensure customers -- and body art professionals -- are protected from unsanitary conditions and the spread of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and the HIV virus.

Supervisors in May voted unanimously to introduce a proposed law regulating the more than 220 active body art businesses and practitioners in the county. A revised ordinance, which will apply to cities as well, will come back for consideration later this month.

"The current regulations are missing a lot of details and requirements," said Steve Van Stockum, the county's environmental health director. "We feel we have waited long enough."

Indeed, a county grand jury last year faulted the county for not having adopted rules. State law has authorized counties to adopt their own regulations since 1999, and the county has inspected the businesses under interim standards.

The proposed rules would formalize the oversight and set fees and fines.

The county would require body art businesses and practitioners to obtain permits from the Department of Environmental Health, which also handles restaurant inspections and other duties.

The detailed proposal sets minimum standards for equipment sterilization and requires artists to attend blood-borne pathogen training. It dictates what artists should do to ensure safety while tattooing or piercing.

Brian Foster, owner of Inkaholics in Moreno Valley, reviewed the county's initial draft law. He said sensible regulations are needed and that he was glad to hear the county is taking up the issue.

"We have been doing everything by the book for years and maybe now 'the other guys' will have to do the same," Foster said by email.

Elayne Angel, incoming president of the Association of Professional Piercers, said the industry supports appropriate legislation.

Riverside County's proposal is similar to what is in place in other states.

"In general, I think it is reasonable and appropriate," said Angel, author of "The Piercing Bible: The Definitive Guide to Safe Body Piercing."

Last year, the county grand jury criticized the Department of Environmental Health for how it oversaw tattooing, body piercing and permanent cosmetics.

For instance, the grand jury concluded that the department does not require proof that applicants completed a health and safety class or have an established plan to deal with an exposure to pathogens. The county disagreed with a number of the grand jury's findings.

Van Stockum said the county had been considering a local ordinance for some time but had hoped the state would approve uniform regulations.

Last year, Assembly Bill 223, known as the Safe Body Art Act, passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature and had the support of body art professionals. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, saying it was an example of how "overregulation" drives away business.

The bill, Schwarzenegger said, tells tattoo artists to use a circular motion to clean the procedure site. "The bill does not appear to authorize a back-and-forth or up-and-down motion," Schwarzenegger said.

The bill's author, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, reintroduced the legislation this year as AB 300. It passed the Assembly in April on a 71-0 vote. The Senate has not taken it up yet.

Supervisor Jeff Stone said the local rules are needed.

Body art not done correctly can cause significant injury, he said.

Stone cited a British Medical Journal report that found nearly one-third of new piercings result in complications.

He spent 20 minutes going over the proposed ordinance section by section at the board's May 17 meeting, asking for additional requirements.

He requested the law mandate sterile gloves, rather than basic exam gloves, for all procedures. If there is a situation requiring medical attention, the case should be reported to the county within 48 hours, Stone requested.

In addition, the supervisor sought provisions banning registered sex offenders from obtaining body art permits.

Stone, a pharmacist, also asked for a requirement that body art practitioners get thumb-printed.

Van Stockum said staff is incorporating Stone's recommendations into the next draft of the law.

The county's ordinance will apply even to incorporated areas, since no cities have their own health departments.

Fees under the proposed law would range from a $50 registration fee for a body art practitioner to an annual $200 permit fee for body art businesses. Penalties range as high as $1,000 and six months in jail for a third offense.

The county's law would not apply to someone piercing only the lower ear lobe with a pre-sterilized, single-use stud and piercing gun.

Tattooing requires inserting pigments, or inks, under the top layer of the skin. A hand-held device moves a needle like a sewing machine to prick the skin. If the needle is not sterile, it could transmit a disease.

Foster, the Inkaholics owner, said he has always stressed a safe, friendly and sterile environment in his business.

"We do not re-sterilize or reuse anything that comes in contact with the client," Foster said. "Everything we use is single use and disposable. This is the best way to be the most sterile, and I think everyone should do this."\

At Inkaholics last week, artists donned exam gloves to begin tattooing several customers. They wrap equipment and other objects they regularly touch, such as lamps, with single-use plastic covers.

Artist James Warf said he opens single-use needles in front of the customer to show them it's sterile and not tampered with. It's a way to boost confidence, he said.

Warf was recently finishing a tattoo for Nicole Locke, of Moreno Valley. She said she was glad Warf showed her the unopened equipment.

Locke said her mother asked her whether it was safe.

"Of course. Everything is sterile," she recalls telling her mother.

Foster's wife, Summer, agreed. "Everyone can see the complete set-up," she said.

All of Inkaholics artists and employees take training in blood-borne pathogens and how to properly handle an emergency. Each studio at Inkaholics' Elsworth Street location has a medical-waste container to dispose of used tattoo needles.

"We have been following the rules since day one," Summer Foster said. "No exceptions."

But Brian Foster said some of Stone's added requirements "seem a little over the top" and will only add costs.

"Sterile gloves would increase the cost of tattooing to the customer and are not needed," Brian Foster said. "Your dentist extracts teeth using the same hospital exam gloves we use."

Likewise, if a hairdresser is not required to be thumb-printed, why should body artists, he said.