Reckless ink?

With rules varying by state, city and county, Syracuse area tattoo artists say they're ready for more stringent regulation of their industry.

The waiting room at Scarab Body Arts looks more like a doctor’s office than a tattoo and piercing studio – comfortable chairs stand between white walls decorated with tasteful wrought iron and tribal artwork.

That’s until you see the framed poster of a topless woman behind a case filled with gleaming studs, and John Joyce greets you with a smile accented by black nostril plugs and a small ring through his septum.

Photo: Max Nepstad
Local artists say almost anyone can start up a tattoo parlor.

Joyce, 31, has owned Scarab, located at 215 Walton St., for eight years. His long dreadlocks, visible half-sleeve tattoos and ears gauged to seven-eighths of an inch make him look the part.

However, almost 15 years since he got his first tattoo, Joyce is more concerned with his clients’ well-being than his appearance.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is they think that all tattoo studios are equal,” Joyce said. “They think that they are all regulated, that we have to pass some art test. And that’s not true.”

But tattoo artists aren’t like doctors, who are heavily regulated by the government and their peers.

The Rules of Tattooing

There are only two federal regulations for tattoo studios: They cannot tattoo anyone under 18 or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Any other regulation is left up to state, county and city law. New York State has had regulations pending for years, Joyce said, and Onondaga County does not have any laws at all.

Carmelo A. Silva sought to comply with local regulation when he moved to Syracuse three years ago, only to find he didn’t even need a permit, like he did in New York City. A tattoo artist and piercer, Silva opened Carmelo’s Ink City at 705 Wolf St. about two months ago.

“It’s scary to think that anybody could just come and open up a shop,” Silva said. “That doesn’t mean they have any experience or anything.”

Silva, 25, started tattooing at a friend’s house and learned much of the trade by reading about it and watching DVDs.

The way Silva gained his knowledge is exactly what D.J. Rose, co-owner of Halo Tattoo, said needs to be regulated.

“I have no doubt that everyone is just as sanitary as they should be,” Rose said. “That’s the easy part. We need to make sure people are having proper apprenticeships, make sure the skill level is up there.”


Safety Techniques 

Joyce, Silva and Rose all said they use new, disposable needles when tattooing. Joyce and Rose also said their shops have autoclaves, a sterilization device that surgeons use.

Additionally, Joyce learns the latest tattooing safety techniques by attending seminars every year.             

“It’s not like a tattoo convention where you are going and working the whole time,” Joyce said. “The whole point is education.”

His experience going to school to be a licensed massage therapist caused him to think about the lack of regulation in the tattoo and piercing industry.

“You have to do all these things just to massage somebody,” Joyce said. “But if I want to poke needles in somebody, I’ll just hang up a sign.”

The New York Times reported in June 2002 that New York State passed a bill for funding tattoo and piercing regulation. Article 4-A of New York State Public Health Law should take effect some time in 2010, said New York State Health Department Public Affairs Manager Beth N. Goldberg. The law allows the state to establish operating standards, set fines and penalties, and would require tattoo and body piercing shops to get a permit in order to operate.

Delays between a bill and actual tattoo regulation are not uncommon. Michigan passed legislation in 2007 and as of January, had postponed the start of licensing for another six months. Illinois’ statewide regulation process began in 2006 and will be enforced for the first time in health department inspections beginning in August.

Tattoo studios in New York State are ready for standards to be set, Rose said.

How other states regulate

But not all regulations are created equal.

“I’ve heard some horror stories of different states that make you have a nurse on staff full time,” Rose said. “They think there’s blood squirting everywhere.”

Some cities have passed licensing laws simply to make revenue, Joyce said. The inspectors are not trained for tattoo studios and look over the place as they would a restaurant, even though different standards should apply. Working with leaders in the industry would help create appropriate regulations.

Regulations affect the safety and training in tattooing, but the artistry of the business should not be formally policed, Rose said.

First Tattoo

 Mike Lawler, 20, sat in Halo Tattoo on Marshall Street on July 22, wincing as his first tattoo, a cross, angel and sun piece on his shoulder blade, started to take shape. Over the buzzing of the tattoo machine, the Liverpool resident said he searched for just the right design. He then went through the online portfolios of the Halo artists until he found Chris Chisholm whose work he called “beautiful.”

Chisholm flicked excess ink from Lawler’s shoulder as Matt Rusch, 20, distracted his friend from the uncomfortable experience. Rusch, a personal trainer at Aspen Athletic Club in Liverpool, has a number of tattoos that were done at Scarab, including one of his last name across his back. Watching Lawler made him want another, he said.

“It’s a way to express yourself through artwork,” Rusch said. “I’ve gone through a lot in my life and it’s been a great way to represent it.”

Trustworthy Tattooers? 

While many tattoo artists have a background in traditional forms of art like painting or drawing, Rose insists there is more to a tattoo artist than just good composition skills.

“We get a lot of artists in here and most of them are not fit to be tattooers,” Rose said, spreading his multi-colored arms. “You know it when you see it.”

Getting a tattoo changes a fundamental part of you, Rose said. He’s always felt good about it.

But Joyce, whose tattoos are converging to a massive chest, back and arm design of Polynesian-inspired black work, will only get tattoos done on his conditions. He trusts his own artists more than anyone else and called them family.

“In some of the bigger studios, some of the bigger named artists, their work is amazing, but they don’t have a clue as far as the safety side of things,” Joyce said.

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