Jan. 18 2012 04:41 PM

The Safe Body Art Act marks the single greatest legal change in how tattoos are inked and skin pierced

Photo illustration by Adam Vieyra

Imperial Beach-based tattoo artist Mike Martin travelled to Sacramento in 2010 to ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the Safe Body Art Act. He might as well have been going to the Vatican to ask the Pope if he wanted his labret pierced.

“His assistant flat-out told us, ‘You'll have to wait until next year. It's not going to get signed,'” Martin, who runs Flesh Skin Grafix, recalls. “I thought it was kind of an insult…. Here, the tattoo industry is reaching out to the administration, the government, and trying to get regulations passed that we feel make our industry safer, and we got shut down like that. I thought it was pretty nasty how it went down.”

In 2011, the bill passed again and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it more quickly than it would take to ink an anarchy symbol on a punk rocker's calf.

There aren't a whole lot of statistics out there about body art, but considering the size of California's population, the generally expressive, image-conscious attitude of its residents and all the bare skin that goes with living in a warm, coastal state, it's not much of a stretch to conclude that California has one of the largest tattoo and piercing industries in the country. So, it's also no exaggeration to suggest that with the passage of AB 300, which was sponsored by state Assemblymember Fiona Ma, the Legislature enacted the single greatest legal change in how tattoos are inked and skin pierced in the history of body modification. San Diego, one of six of the state's 58 counties that already have a local body-art ordinance in place, played a major role.

“The San Diego [County] Environmental Health Department [was] very instrumental in helping us draft the legislation to make sure what was in it was going to be applicable and enforceable,” Ma says. She also credits two San Diego tattoo-parlor owners, Martin and Fip Buchanan of Avalon Tattoo II—who serve as president and vice president, respectively, of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists—for being “unbelievably supportive.”

Local agencies will begin enforcing AB 300 in July, once health inspectors have been trained in how to inspect tattoo and piercing studios and cosmetic-tattoo clinics. Among the new regulations: Artists will need to register with local governments and receive blood-borne pathogen training, begin collecting informed consent and other personal information (such as current pregnancy and STDs) from their clients and use specific sterile equipment. The law also sets the rules for tattoo expositions and mobile body-art operations.

While many politicians and business owners claim that over-regulation is stifling California jobs, AB 300 was backed by the body-art industry, which has long sought uniform standards. Many complain that shady parlors are able to undercut the prices of above-board operations by cutting corners on safety.

“There are people that are trying their best to make this industry a safe place to work and a safe place for our customers and trying to keep on top of the latest things in safe tattooing,” Martin says. “And then there are people who just don't give a damn about it. The bottom line is they want to make as much as they can…. And you can try to be competitive price-wise, but the people who don't care are doing tattoos for $40 and doing body piercings for $15 and $20. I hope they go away or they get on board with what the standards are.”

San Diego County communications director Mike Workman initially approved an interview with a health inspector who worked on AB 300, but then retracted the offer. His reason: He doesn't like our reporter's “bullying” style in investigating stories unrelated to this one.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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