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Politics & Government

In Debate Over Tattoo Regulations, Arguments Have Been Inked Before

An effort to require tattoo artists in Pennsylvania to be licensed serves as an example of the kind of tug of war between those who support government regulations and those who see many of them as a threat to market competition.

Pennsylvania doesn't regulate tattoo parlors — something that Paul Garrison, owner of the Ink Splat tattoo shop in East Stroudsburg used to find quite strange.

He moved here from New Jersey, which has some hefty controls on body art shops. But in the two years Garrison's been running a tattoo parlor in Monroe County, he hasn't been required to be certified to work with blood borne pathogens or be inspected by the Health Department.

A lack of regulations, he said, has created a wild west of tattoo parlors.

"In Pennsylvania you have a lot of people that are called scratchers — tattooing out of their houses, pretty much making a mess of people," Garrison said. "I mean there are some of them that do know what they're doing. But a lot of them ... they order stuff online, and they just start tattooing people out of their house and they have no clue on what they're doing."

But free market proponents are suspect of calls for more regulations that come from businesses instead of consumers. Nathan Benefield, with the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he asks a few questions of every proposed regulation.

"Is this protecting citizens' rights?" Benefield said. "Is this something that could be handled by the private sector or voluntary agreement?"

Too often, he said, the claim that businesses want to help the community can just as easily be translated to wanting to tamp down competition. "I haven't seen a call from consumers to regulate tattoo parlors," said Benefield. "It could be handled through the tort system ... or the market."

A proposal to regulate tattoo artists has cleared a House committee. The legislation would establish a license, expiring annually, and costing $100. It would put the state Department of Health in charge of inspecting and regulating shops. Since the proposal was sent to the full Senate, it's been tabled.

"If you're in the industry and you're doing what you're supposed to be, it wouldn't affect you anyway," Garrison said. "I mean, I've spent my time and my money doing things right."