As county officials work to implement state legislation requiring tattoo and piercing shops to register and pass a battery of tests, some area practitioners question the need for the new regulations and ask whether the government will crack down on underground artists.
AB 300 created California inspection and registration protocols for tattoo and piercing shops, as well as the artists, but left it to the counties to do the legwork. The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, is aimed at protecting the public from exposure to hepatitis C and other blood-borne pathogens. It took effect in July.
Ma said she was shocked six years ago to learn there were no state rules on the operation of tattoo parlors.
"I wanted to do something about this to ensure diseases would not be shared through needles," Ma said.
With the backing of industry trade groups, her legislation was passed in 2011.
The legislation also allows counties to assess shops and practitioners to fund annual inspections.
Placer County took action Tuesday, adopting a fee schedule under which Placer County tattoo and piercing practitioners must pay $80 a year. Other fees were assigned for permanent facilities, temporary events and in various other categories.
In Sacramento County, which charges practitioners $142 a year under its fee schedule, environmental specialist Anne Frey was busy Thursday implementing the new rules. By early afternoon, Highland's Finest Tattoos in North Highlands became just the 13th county location to pass inspection.
"It's the intent of this law to protect the client and the artist," said Frey, as she wrapped up the one-hour-plus inspection.
During her visit, she watched tattoo artist Art Pillado set up his workstation, examined the shop's training records and ensured that needles were disposed of properly, among other things.
Shop owner Kenya Bell was pleased to pass and said she was supportive of the inspection requirements.
"I really think it will be better for the profession," Bell said. "I think people will respect it more."
Frey left after placing a green "pass" placard in the shop's window. Displaying the placard is voluntary. The inspections are mandatory.
Sacramento County officials say there are more than 175 facilities that will need inspections, but so far only 47 have asked for them.
Some tattoo shop owners believe the county's estimate is low, and complain that it doesn't take into account people who work from home without a business license.
A search of the online classified site Craigslist revealed seven people offering tattoos, one offering permanent makeup, one selling piercings, three selling tattoo equipment and one guy soliciting a tattoo in exchange for an Xbox 360 video game system.
"If they don't go after people who are working out of their house and not compliant, what is the point?" asked Dave O'Connor, owner of Sacramento Tattoo.
O'Connor said the registration revenue should be used to go after the underground artists.
Whether counties will have the time or resources to go after unlicensed practitioners remains to be seen. Alicia Enriquez, deputy chief of the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department, said inspectors will act on tips, but noted that tattoo shop inspections will be just one of many duties for them.
Ken Stuart, interim director of environmental health for Placer County, was blunt, noting that "none of the fees" go toward enforcement.
O'Connor and others said the best tattoo and piercing practitioners had taken blood-borne pathogen training and done 90 percent of what is required by AB 300 before it became law.
"People's health and welfare isn't being threatened by people working out of a shop, it's being threatened by people working out of their house next to their cat box," said Drew Howell, an artist at Sacramento Tattoo.
Britton McFetridge, owner of Royal Peacock Tattoo, questioned the need for the law. He said the county can't point to any local instance where hepatitis C was spread by tattoo artists' dirty needles.
"For us, there was never a problem," he said.
The new rules have prompted some changes in operations at local shops. Highland's Finest installed a new sink with a touch-free faucet. Sacramento Tattoo will be installing two new sinks, has added a new test to its already fastidious cleaning regimen and updated some paperwork.
"Most of what AB 300 requires, we were already doing," O'Connor said.