Local tattoo artists say license fee increase will mean more shoddy work done outside professional studios

Friday, January 7, 2011
Chris Hester gets a tattoo on his neck from Andy Estes on Thursday at Flesh Hound in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Amid the buzz of a tattoo needle and the roar of heavy metal music, Mike King pulled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a crudely inked image, a jagged circle with the letters "LSD" etched across it.

"It was done with a staple gun and some ashes," King said with an embarrassed laugh.

Amateurs who apply shabby tattoos with makeshift tools are called "scratchers," and legitimate tattoo artists say the number of scratchers will only proliferate under a proposal to triple Missouri tattoo license fees.

"Not enough people care enough about who tattoos them," said Andy Estes, a tattoo artist at Flesh Hound in Cape Girardeau, as he dipped his electric needle into a tiny jar of lime green ink. The needle quickly pricked King's skin, drawing up a tiny dot of blood with each poke. Estes repeatedly stopped inking to spray King's skin with antiseptic and wipe away the pools of blood.

King said he was "upgrading" by having Estes do this tattoo, a portrait of pro wrestler Rick Flair.

"Scratchers" do tattoos in their basements or kitchens with equipment bought on eBay or handmade in their garage.

The fee proposals are "making it harder for us to tattoo and easier for scratchers to tattoo," said Jake French, a tattoo artist at A Different Drummer in Cape Girardeau. "It makes it harder for people who want to do it legally to come about that."

The fee increase is needed to cover the rising costs of regulating the rapidly expanding tattooing industry, state officials say.

The Missouri Division of Professional Registration's Office of Tattooing, Body Piercing and Branding is accepting public comments through Jan. 14 on proposed fee increases. The new fees are expected to go into effect in late April or May, said Travis Ford, spokesman for the Division of Professional Registration.

Individual tattoo licenses will jump from $30 to $100, and tattoo establishment licenses will go from $100 to $200. Additional fees are charged for combination licenses, like tattooing and body piercing. The licenses are good for two years.

The number of people with tattoo licenses statewide has risen from 817 in 2005 to 1,120 in 2010, Ford said.

"The biggest factor is these licensing offices get no general revenue from the state, so they have to be self-sustaining and funded by the fees collected from licenses," Ford said.

The popularity of reality television shows like "LA Ink," which features the country's most famous tattoo artist, Kat Von D, have inspired more people to get into the business, said Estes, who has been tattooing for eight years.

"The false presumption you can be a rock star, Kat Von D-type celebrity makes everybody who thinks they can draw" think they can also be a tattoo artist, Estes said. "That's the real problem in the industry."

In Cape Girardeau County, there are seven people licensed as tattooists, seven more licensed to do tattoos and body piercings, and one individual licensed for tattoos, body piercings and branding. Cape Girardeau County has two licensed tattoo establishments, three licensed for tattoos and body piercing and none licensed for branding. Two people have body piercing licenses.

Though against the fee increases, tattoo artists say they'd like to see the state use the additional fee revenue to step up their enforcement of tattoo license guidelines.

"People think anyone can do it," French said. "It's like cars. Anybody can build a car, but you're not going to buy a car from somebody who built it out of their house and doesn't know what they're doing."

In order to obtain a tattoo license, artists go through an apprenticeship or educational program from an accredited institution and are required to take classes in infectious disease control, basic first aid and CPR.

"I haven't met an inspector in five years," Estes said. "It's not near as thorough as it should be."

The state didn't close any tattoo establishments due to licensing violations last year, Ford said, but it has issued cease-and-desist orders and has had good cooperation from those individuals.

"We want folks out there to let us know if they know of unlicensed activity," Ford said. "That includes professionals in the industry, consumers, anybody."

Unlicensed tattooing can be reported to state officials by calling 573-526-8288.

Higher licensing fees aren't significant enough to translate to higher prices for tattoos, Estes and French said.

"If they charge more, they are scamming people," Estes said.



Pertinent addresses:

716 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Andy Estes applies a tattoo on Chris Hester's neck Thursday at Flesh Hound in Cape Girardeau. Hester has been getting tattoos for 13 years. "Eventually he'll probably end up with a body suit," Estes said. (Fred Lynch)

905 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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