By Gregory B. Hladky
4:05 PM EDT, June 18, 2013
Thousands of people eager to have their bodies decorated with beautiful and sometimes bizarre images — or at least to admire that sort of artwork — will be coming to Hartford this weekend.
And they'll be arriving at this fantasmagorical festival on the heels of legislative action to put in Connecticut's first real system of regulation and licensing for this state's booming tattoo industry.
"I think it's great," Josh Allen, of Tsunami Black Tattoo in Enfield, says of the new regulations. "The system that's in place right now is not working... There's barely any regulation. It's kind of a Wild Wild West situation."
While Connecticut law says you've got to get a state license to cut somebody's hair, all you need to start poking a design into somebody's skin is a needle and some ink.
But some in the industry warn there could also be a downside to the new controls — that some tattoo artists won't want to pay the initial $250 licensing fee or $200 biennial reregistration charge, or comply with health and training regs. The fear is the new system could drive some artists into "the underground," beyond any controls.
Peter Coinin Jr., owner of Connecticut's oldest tattoo parlor (The Beauty Mark Tattoo Studio in Waterbury) has no problem with the licensing, but he wonders how the new system can be enforced.
"The real problem is the people who are practicing out of their house or their basement," he says. "This legislation seems to only apply to the people who are already following the rules."
The trigger for the General Assembly's decision was the seriously delayed realization that getting a tattoo was no longer something that only sailors and gangsters were into. Tattooing has gone mainstream, and the state now has virtually no controls over an industry dealing with blood, penetration of skin, and serious potential health consequences.
A couple of years ago, a Pew Research Center survey found that 38 percent of folks 18-29 (those wild and crazy millennials) reported having at least one tattoo. One indication of just how mainstream the practice has become is the popularity of TV shows like "LA Ink" and "Ink Master."
The Daily Beast recently reported on a new trend toward "nipple tattoos" in the United Kingdom. The idea is that someone worried about the "aesthetic appeal" of their nipples or areolae (one larger than the other, too high or too low, etc.) can have their perceived problem corrected through tattooing.
In 2007, the U.S. Census counted 34 tattoo parlors in Connecticut, but the industry has been growing at a phenomenal pace in recent years, according to various sources.
"In the past 10 years, it's done nothing but grow every year," says Tom Ringwalt, owner of Tommy's Supplies in Somers. Allen agrees: "The industry is just absolutely booming right now."
Ringwalt is the primary organizer and sponsor of Tommy's Tattoo Convention, which will be opening for the second year in a row this weekend at the Connecticut Convention Center. Last year's inaugural edition drew more than 4,000 people, according to Ringwalt, and he's hoping for an even bigger turnout this time around.
The convention is scheduled to run Friday, Saturday and Sunday and feature artists ranging from "LA Ink" star Amy Nicoletto to Stefano Alcantara and dozens of homegrown tattoo talents.
Ringwalt says he has no problem with Connecticut wanting to enact some sort of serious licensing and regulations, but he's worried about the sizeable fees in the new legislation. (The bill approved by the General Assembly is now with Gov. Dannel Malloy, who is expected to sign it into law soon.)
The regulations will take effect in July 2014, and when they do, a temporary tattoo license for out-of-state artists to practice at events like the Hartford convention will cost $100. "That's crazy," insists Ringwalt. "It's stupid."
He is worried that out-of-state artists will refuse to attend the show if they have to pay that much. Ringwalt says it looks like this year's and next year's conventions will be workable, "but after that I won't be able to do it."
There's also the concern that many local tattoo artists will resist paying those significant licensing fees. "I have a feeling a lot will go underground," Ringwalt warns.
Coinin thinks it's those underground tattoo folks that are the problem now. His biggest concern is that simply having a new set of allegedly tough regulations won't cure what ails the industry.
"I have questions about how it will be enforced and how effective it will be," says Coinin.
The artists who aren't following the industry's health standards now are usually people who aren't good enough to get hired at professional tattoo parlors, according to Coinin. He says a lot of those folks simply set up shop in their kitchen or basement and advertise cheap rates on the Internet.
According to Coinin, most legitimate tattoo studios are already doing a lot more in terms of training and health for customers (gloves, disposable needles, etc.) than the new regulations will require. "The industry has already evolved past [the standards set in the new legislation]," he argues.
When his dad first opened their Waterbury studio in 1976, he was making his own needles and his own tattoo dyes, Coinin points out. Now, there are all kinds of professional tattoo supply operations where up-to-date technology is easy to find.
The people who aren't following proper health and safety procedures are those dudes operating out of their homes, Coinin says. "There are unqualified people out there, but I don't know that this new law will be able to do anything about it," he adds.
The lack of any coordinated system for inspecting and regulating tattoo parlors in Connecticut has become painfully obvious, according to health officials and people in the industry.
Current law says that a physician is supposed to inspect a tattoo parlor at least once a year. Coinin says he's been paying thousands of dollars for years to have those inspections done, but no government official has (until very recently) ever checked to make sure those inspections were actually performed.
Allen says there has been "no communication between any of the agencies" that are supposed to be watching to make sure tattoo parlors and artists are protecting the public's health.
Allen says rates for tattooing are all over the place. He's been in the business for 13 years and just opened up his own shop in Enfield about a year-and-a-half ago.
Most commercial tattoo studios in Connecticut charge in the range of $100 to $120 an hour. But, he adds, "you can do whatever you want" in terms of rates, which can also vary depending on the experience and skill of the artist.
He's hoping that a more standardized system of regulation and control may also bring some more sensible pricing across the industry.
Allen insists he sees no downside to the new licensing and regulation system. He argues those fees shouldn't be a big deal to a legitimate tattoo shop that already has to pay lots of costs to operate a storefront. "It's not cheap," he points out.
"If you don't have the ability to pay for [the new licensing fees], what kind of business are you running?" he asks.
Tattooing has become big business, and some in the industry claim the state is simply looking to make some new money off the licensing fees. But Coinin cites a recent legislative analysis that estimated the potential overall cost to the state for the new regulatory system would be about $31,000 more in 2015 than the new fees would raise.
The money, argues Allen, is a secondary consideration.
"For the public's safety and health," he says, "this has to be taken care of."
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