24-hour waiting period for tattoos, piercings proposed in District


Angela Diorio, of McLean, Va., has work done to her back tattoo by James Haun of Fatty's Custom Tattoz & body piercing at the DC Tattoo Expo earlier this year in Arlington. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Some popular impulse purchases — tattoos and body piercings — could soon become less impulsive if District health regulators have their way.

A mandatory 24-hour waiting period is among the provisions included in a 66-page package of draft regulations governing the “body art” industry released by the city Health Department on Friday.

If the waiting period is adopted, D.C. will become one of a very few places in the nation where a person cannot walk into a tattoo parlor and walk out with a tattoo.

That’s exactly what Marcela Onyango did Friday afternoon, when she got her mother’s birth year — 1961 — tattooed on her rib cage at Fatty’s Custom Tattooz. It’s something the 25-year-old has been thinking about since her mom died three years ago, and she said she doesn’t think the government should make her wait another day.

“That’s stupid. I think you shouldn’t tell people what to do,” Onyango said. “We’re all adults. It’s not their business.”

The proposal is a sticking point for those who work in the industry, too.

It’s “honestly ridiculous,” said Paul Roe, who operates Britishink, a tattoo parlor on H Street NE. Roe, 45, testified in favor of a D.C. Council bill allowing the Health Department to regulate body art establishments because rules setting standards on hygiene, record keeping and licensing make sense, he said.

The waiting period, he said, does not.

“Why not 24 hours’ waiting time before shaving your head?” he asked.

City officials insist that the rule will protect the public. Najma Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said the new regulations were mandated by a law the council approved last year and are mainly intended to prevent “serious health risks.”

The rules include mandatory hepatitis B vaccinations and biohazard training for all tattoo artists and body-piercers as well as strict requirements on the use of needles, inks, gloves and other equipment. With the exception of certain ear piercings, tattoos and piercings would be banned for those younger than 18.

The proposal’s future is far from certain. The public has 30 days to comment on the draft rules, and it is not uncommon for regulations to be toned down as a result.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said Gray has “serious doubts about the regulations as proposed” and will consider the comments received before issuing final regulations.

Gilda Acosta, an artist at Fatty’s, said roughly half her business comes from walk-ins, so the proposed rule would hurt.

In her small work space near Dupont Circle, where she’d just given Onyango her tiny, numerical tattoo, Acosta said most customers have thought out their artwork for a long time before they take a seat in her leather chair.

“It would definitely be a direct hit to my income if I couldn’t tattoo people who come in and want work done on the same day,” said Acosta, 32, who has been tattooing for a decade.

The body art rules are the latest product of a city government that has occasionally struggled to reconcile its socially liberal sensibilities with a zeal for regulation. The effort to craft rules governing the operation of food trucks spanned four years and was not resolved until lawmakers directly intervened this year. Rules governing the city’s tightly controlled medical marijuana program run to nearly 120 pages.

Before the D.C. Council passed the body art legislation last year, the tattoo and piercing business was not subject to special regulations — unlike Maryland, Virginia and most states. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said she introduced a bill after learning the District was one of the few places in the country that did not regulate its industry.

The waiting period is based on rules in at least two Wisconsin municipalities, but it is all but unheard of in cities as large as Washington. Roberts said it is meant to save body art consumers from permanent consequences they might come to regret — particularly if they seek tattoos or piercings while drunk or otherwise impaired.

“They can’t be responsible for themselves, as well as the person doing the work on them,” she said. “We’re making sure when that decision is made that you’re in the right frame of mind, and you don’t wake up in the morning . . . saying, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ ”

Most reputable tattoo shops turn away customers who are visibly intoxicated, Roe said. Codifying that practice, he said, would make more sense than preventing sober and consenting adults from getting tattoos or piercings on demand.

“Simple regulation is effective regulation,” he said. “Overregulation will kill the profession and drive it underground and make it less safe for everybody.”

Alexander said she doubted that an employee of a body art parlor would be able to determine whether a customer was under the influence.

“If you really want to get it,” she said, “then what’s 24 hours?”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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