New law cleans up tattoo reputation

Authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, AB 300 goes further than existing requirements by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA. The new law requires a business to display its state license. All tat

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STUDIO CITY - The crew of artists and piercers at Studio City Tattoo lead a modern day pirate's life - sort of.

Hand-carved treasure chests and custom-made swords line the walls of the Ventura Boulevard parlor, where a sign written in Olde Tyme script warns customers that "A good tattoo is never cheap. A cheap tattoo is never good."

But except for the swords, there are no other exposed blades or sharp objects. Instead of rum, they have plastic wrapped bottles of rubbing alcohol.

And beside the swashbuckling memorabilia are the newest tools of one of the oldest trades: high-end bottles of lilac, red, blue and black inks guarded in a stainless steel medicine cabinet, and advanced autoclaves that can nuke any microscopic germ.

"We've worked to have a high level of cleanliness for a long time," said owner Clay Clement. "It's good ethics and good business."

Clement said he and the other artists at Studio City Tattoo have been self regulating their health and safety practices for almost 20 years. But like many parlors in the San Fernando Valley and across Los Angeles, his tattoo and piercing business has never had to register with the state because it wasn't required.

That will change on July 1.

A new state law called the Safe Body Art Act that passed in October requires tattoo and piercing parlor owners to register with local governments, receive annual health and safety training, and agree to at least 25 other provisions. The law extends to anyone who works in the body modification business.

"Los Angeles County is one of the few counties that saw the importance of this back in 1999," said Terri Williams, assistant director for the environmental health division of the county's public health department.

Previously, only the 450 parlors within unincorporated communities had to apply for the registration and inspections, she said. The new law applies to all parlors in the county - including those in cities, such as Los Angeles.

Williams estimates there are 1,500 such businesses countywide. To handle the increase, Williams expects to hire at least five more people to staff the existing three-person "body art unit".

"Now that the bill has passed, the intent is for enforcement across the state," Williams said.

Authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, AB 300 goes further than existing requirements by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA. The new law requires a business to display its state license. All tattoo and piercing artists must follow rules on equipment sterilization and cleanliness. And anyone under 18 years old is prohibited from getting a tattoo - whether they have parental permission or not.

Of the 58 counties statewide, only six had some sort of regulations.

"The fact that there are so many tattoo parlors... I was shocked that there was no statewide regulation," said Ma, who learned she had Hepatitis B when she was 22 years old. She has since worked to promote hepatitis screenings, but AB 300 is another step toward prevention, she said. The bill also leaves room for city and counties to implement regulations at their own discretion, Ma said.

But the bill stops short of regulating businesses that pierce ears at mall kiosks, which some business owners deem unfair.

"Their equipment is a little different," Ma said of the mall ear piercers. "They use single-use needles. That's why we worked very closely with them."

Once the mark of a rebel or a scoundrel, elaborately designed tattoos now decorate the arms, legs and chests of doctors and lawyers, PTA moms and grandmothers.

A 2007 report from the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of those ages 26 to 40 had a tattoo, while 22 percent had a body piercing other than to their ear.

Williams said the new bill wasn't in response to any noted local increases in bloodborne infections, such as hepatitis or HIV.

But Los Angeles' love of ink has also caused a drop in blood donations.

American Red Cross officials say people with tattoos can donate blood if their body art was done by a state-regulated parlor using sterile needles and ink that wasn't reused. If not, donors - including those who were inked up in unregulated states - must wait 12 months after receiving the tattoo before they give blood.

"This is a great move that will hopefully increase the number of people who can donate blood when we need it," said Nick Samaniego, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, Southern California Region.

"Tattoos have become so mainstream, that unfortunately it impacts the number of people who are eligible to give here in Los Angeles," Samaniego said. "We have to turn away a lot of people who have recent piercings and tattoos. This is one of the few instances that there's potential to grow the donor pool."

The bill was backed by public health departments, cities, and industry organizations such as the Association of Professional Piercers.

"We didn't write those laws, but we're trying to keep them reasonable and safe," said Mike Martin, president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists.

"We were sponsors of it to teach regulators what to look for at tattoo shops," Martin said. "There are so many things on the bill that we're working to amend, such as requiring a sink at every station. That could be a plumbing nightmare."

But overall, tattoo artists say they are pleased with the statewide effort.

"I think it's the greatest thing," said Leo Martinis, who along with his wife Debbie, owns Think Ink Tattoos in Woodland Hills, which he opened 18 years ago.

Martinis said his business already was up to Cal/OSHA codes and beyond, but the additional regulations will hold all tattoo artists and piercers accountable. That may mean some businesses will go under.

"You'll see a lot of tattoo places close because if you're not already following rules, you're in big trouble," he said. "The best thing now is inspectors are going to come by and check."

Clement, the Studio City Tattoo owner who also authored a children's book, "Pirate Santa," said he has spent thousands of dollars to get his shop into tip-top safety conditions.

"Our service is tattoos, but we sell credibility," Clement said. "People need to feel safe."

On a recent morning, he showed visitors how artists use gloves, disinfecting wipes and plastic wrap to ensure a safe environment, as well as a one-way disposable system for needles, ink tubes, and razors.

Clement said some newer parlors may feel the economic pinch of complying with state laws, but the regulations also will cut down on what he calls the "kitchen magicians" - those who apply tattoos and charge less, because they skimp on safety equipment and quality.

"We're looking forward (to state regulations) because we're already there," Clement said. "You have to get a state license to cut hair. Why not in our industry?"