On Maui, and throughout Hawaii, tattooing is serious business. According to some estimates, the Aloha State is the most tattooed in the nation; Maui alone has over a dozen shops scattered across the island, full of busy artists working on locals and tourists alike. People flock here from all over the world to get inked.
So it should come as no surprise that the industry is being put under the microscope and that a chorus of voices is calling for tighter regulation. What is surprising is that those calls aren’t coming from some buttoned-up anti-tattoo lobby or a public health watchdog group—they’re coming from the tattoo artists themselves.
Earlier this month, a group of tattooists sat down with lawmakers on Oahu to go over the nearly three-decades old state licensing exam and to push for an updated revamp that takes into greater account the spread of blood-born diseases like HIV and hepatitis and other issues like body piercing and the legality of traditional Hawaiian methods. Overall, the goal seems sensible if somewhat counterintuitive: to bolster the industry by cracking down it.
The Oahu meeting came on the heels of a protracted fight over House Bill 2283. The bill—drafted by a coalition of tattoo artists with an assist from state Representative John Mizuno of Oahu—sought to soften existing regulations and to allow unlicensed artists to work in Hawaii for up to 14 days. One of the goals was to make it easier to stage tattoo trade shows featuring out-of-state artists, something that’s next to impossible given current licensing requirements.
In February, after initially opposing HB2283, the state Department of Health gave the bill its blessing. In testimony provided to the Committee on Finance, DOH Director Chiyome Leinaala Fukino said that, “Given the maturity of the industry and its ability to practice in a sanitary manner, we would like to change the previous opposition of this bill to one of support with reservations.”
Fukino went on to cite DOH and Centers for Disease Control and Protection data that show no evidence linking commercial tattoo artists in Hawaii to “significant numbers of transmitted infections.”
Of course, it could be argued that those numbers are directly tied to the strict regulations that are in place; relax regulations and things might go south in a hurry. That’s exactly what some tattooists did argue. As quoted in an April 8 Associated Press story, Oahu tattoo shop owner Florence Batlle called the prospect of eased restrictions, “really scary.”
“Unprofessional tattoo artists could come into Hawaii and put everyone at risk,” she said.
Batlle and other like-minded tattooists got their wish. After much lobbying and debate, HB2283—which passed the House—was yanked from the agenda by the Senate, wiped away like one of those temporary stick-on jobs in the bathtub.
But even with the threat of deregulating legislation at least temporarily off the table, the discussion isn’t over. Opinion appears split between artists who want to see regulations maintained and tightened—either to keep standards high or to cut down on the competition, depending on who you ask—and those who feel there’s nothing wrong with opening things up.
They want to narrow the market, they don’t want newcomers to come to the island and open up tattoo shops,” says Circle of Evolved Art Tattoo Parlor in Wailuku, when asked about the push for tighter restrictions within the industry. He acknowledges that concerns over safety may be “a small part of it,” but maintains that the primary motivation is keeping the competition down.
Circle, who’s been in the business for 13 years, nine on Maui, supports the idea of bringing in guest artists, even if that means streamlining the licensing process. “That’s the way we learn. They shouldn’t make it difficult for somebody who knows what they’re doing to come out here and tattoo,” he says. “They only offer the test twice a year, once in January and once in July, and you have to have all your paperwork three months in advance. They want a physical examination, blood test. Even if you’re licensed in another state, it doesn’t matter. It makes it hard for people to come in.”
That doesn’t mean, he’s quick to emphasize, that he doesn’t care about safety. “Don’t get me wrong, there should be regulations. [But] people in the industry are pretty on top of it. I’d say a lot of tattoo shops are cleaner than some hospitals I’ve been to.”
Tony Mucci, owner of Skin Deep Tattoo in Lahaina, calls the fact that Hawaii has some of the toughest rules in the nation a “wonderful thing.” His opinion, however, isn’t based on fears over unsanitary conditions or the spread of disease. Rather, he feels that restrictions help keep the quality of the industry high. “Yes, you need to understand cross-contamination, you need to know about blood-born pathogens,” he says. “But that stuff has nothing to do with tattooing, with the application of it.”
For Mucci, quality of work, and pride in the skill and artistry involved in tattooing, is paramount. It’s what’s helped build the industry into what it is, and it’s the only thing that will sustain it. “If someone gives you a bad tattoo, it puts a bad face on the whole tattoo world. But if your first tattoo rips and rules, now you’ve got the taste in your mouth; now you want more.” A rising ink tide, in other words, lifts all boats.
While Mucci admits that even the most stringent licensing requirements couldn’t weed out every bad artist, he’s adamant that deregulation isn’t the answer. At the same time, he wholeheartedly supports the idea of guest artists coming to the islands—he just thinks they should have to work to get here, like he did.
Before taking ownership of Skin Deep earlier this year, Mucci spent more than a decade traveling to Hawaii as a guest artist, jumping through the required regulatory hoops. Doing so, he says, proved how serious he was about being here and doing good work. “I like the fact that you have to come here and get tested and go through all that. It shows how bad you really want to tattoo on the island.” The only downside, Mucci says, is that the current requirements make it difficult to lure older, iconic artists who “remember the days when you didn’t even have to wear gloves.”
Mucci also supports the idea of tattoo conventions. His vision, though, is of an inter-island event focused on the licensed artists who are already here, augmented by a few outside tattooists who are willing to take the necessary steps. And yet, he’s quick to add, that vision is probably unrealistic—but not because of government oversight. “Right now there’s a weirdness between a lot of the shops,” he says. “Like that guy down the street doesn’t like this guy, and those guys over there don’t talk; there’s these weird rivalries. Ten years ago, there were only a few shops. Now, they’re opening up all over. So you get insecurity.”
If all of this paints a bleak picture of an industry divided, that’s only partially accurate. There is infighting, sure, and disagreements between artists about both the practical and aesthetic aspects of the business. But the thing that unites many tattooists—certainly the two quoted in this story—is love of the work.
“It’s a passion,” says Circle. “You can tell the [artists] that really put their heart into it and the ones that are just in it for the bucks. Some guys come out here because they know they can make money off the tourists. Some of the tourist shops, they can soak people by charging a lot for something that takes them 10 minutes. They’re not really concerned about the art, or that people will be carrying this for the rest of their life.”
Mucci concurs. “It’s all about quality, whether it’s someone getting something the size of a half-dollar or the guy with a sleeve. It’s just as important to each person.”
When we visited Mucci at his shop, it was buzzing with customers. Evolved Art also appeared to have a loyal client base filling its chairs. Ditto many of the island’s other parlors. Even in these uncertain economic times, the ink business seems to be holding strong. Mucci thinks he knows why. “When things are going good, you go and get a tattoo,” he says. “And when things are going bad, you go and get a tattoo.” MTW
Images courtesy of: Evolved Art, Skin Deep Tattoo