The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. tattoo artists took on the government. Their grievance? Toilets.

Tattoo artist Fatty, a.k.a. Matt Jessup, has led the charge against proposed D.C. regulations on body art establishments. Well, some of them, anyway. (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)

Fatty was ready to fight the government. His backpack was full of signed petitions. Instead of his usual uniform of heavy-metal T-shirt and rubber gloves, he was wearing a cream-colored sweater. It completely covered his tattoos, the art form that was the reason he was here, at the D.C. Department of Public Health.

“We’re not going to take this,” he had been saying for a week. “If this is the law, it means war.”

“This” was a 59-page document of new regulations aimed at the city’s body art establishments. This was of particular interest to Fatty, the owner of Fatty’s Tattoos & Piercings in Dupont Circle and on H Street. In his view, the regulations were “madness being rammed down our throats.”

And that was why, on a February Monday, he had come downtown to contest them. At the security desk, he signed his legal name: Matt Jessup. He was followed by the city’s other tattoo parlor owners, who had stacks of petitions signed by their customers, too. On any other day they would be competitors; now they were united in frustration.

Fatty pushed the button for the elevator that would take them up to a conference room. City officials had agreed to hear their concerns. Again they rehearsed their arguments over their main point of woe: toilets.

The new regulations stated that any establishment with more than five body artists must have two places for the employees to relieve themselves.

“I have a 20-year-lease. I don’t have an option to build a bathroom in my space,” said Matthew Knopp, owner of Tattoo Paradise in Adams Morgan.

“The cost of building a bathroom and shutting down to build could cost you tens of thousands of dollars,” Fatty said.

Knopp shook his head, annoyed. “We have operated 15, 20 years with no issues whatsoever and no problems, and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘I think you need this for your business and this for your business?’ ”

“Twenty-five years in business and I’ve never had a backup at the bathroom,” Fatty said. The elevator door opened. A man in a suit walked out, and the doors closed before the tattoo artists could step in.

“Even the elevators here are dysfunctional!” Fatty said. He laughed and rolled up his sweater sleeves to reveal the skull inked on his arm.

Fatty is not fat. He picked up the name as a child in Silver Spring, Md., and it stuck, even when he grew up to be, at 45 years old, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds.

“A lean, mean 210 pounds,” he said the evening before his big meeting.

Fatty has been the subject of many media interviews since 2012, when the D.C. Council passed an act requiring the Department of Health to draw up regulations for the city’s body-art establishments. Fatty supported that law. He considers himself an expert in “cross-contamination prevention.” Tattoo artists who don’t follow stringent safety practices just make a bad name for the industry, he thought.

Then the first draft of the regulations was published. It included a provision mandating a 24-hour waiting period between the time a customer asks for a tattoo and the actual inking.

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

As the tattoo industry aesthetic has evolved from biker gang to Pinterest-chic, there are probably many people walking around with infinity knots or the ever-present “This too shall pass” tattoos and wishing that they had followed the mantra of “think before you ink.”

But the proposal was decried as government overreach and quickly shot down. The department came up with a new draft in 2014, but again the body-art community, with Fatty leading the charge, found reasons to rally against it during the public comment period. The department tried again in 2015, with the same result. But this time, in 2017, Fatty and the other tattoo shop owners said they didn’t hear about the new, fourth version until after the comment period had ended. Now, the rules were in force.

Fatty found them arbitrary and confusing. There was the number-of-bathrooms problem. The section decreeing that waiting areas should have “an average illumination value of ten (10) foot-candles of light, but never less than seven and a half (7.5) foot-candles of light.” The line that had been intended to say artists should employ only disposable “single-use” needles instead said “single needles.” It was probably just a typo, but if artists were to follow the regulation word-for-word, then technically they would be allowed to give customers tattoos with one needle at a time, resulting in the line-drawing type of tattoo that most would call a “prison tat.”

Fatty logged on to and typed a letter to his “friends and fans.” “No More Body Art in DC? We Need Your Help!” he wrote.

Petitions were signed. The meeting was set up.

The District, he acknowledged, isn’t known for its tattoo industry. If you want a skull or a bird or the word “MOM” on your arm forever, there are only about a dozen places to get it done. It’s an uptight town. But that was all the more reason for him to fight for body-art businesses. Think, he said, of “all the people sitting in soul-sucking office environments. But then they look down and see the tattoo, and they remember who they are.”

Fatty took his place at the conference table and studied the four representatives from the Department of Health at the other end. One appeared to have pierced ears. That counted as body art, he thought. He couldn't see any tattoos.

“I am going to record this meeting,” announced Erica Smith, an attorney from the Institute for Justice who had come to assist the tattoo artists. She had discussed helping them file a lawsuit — Fatty v. the District of Columbia, the court documents might say.

Then a department attorney informed her that she could not record the meeting. They began to argue — and that’s when the department’s public information officer asked this reporter to leave the room. The meeting was not open to the media, he said.

An hour and a half later, Fatty and his allies emerged. Smiling.

“They earnestly took our input,” Fatty said. “They’re going to revisit some things.”

He was in awe. “They seemed flexible and amenable, and they made it clear that their goal is not to put us out of business,” he said.

The regulators, according to the tattoo artists, had promised to visit each shop and make exceptions where they were warranted. They said they would work to clarify confusing parts of the regulations.

“The two sides came together,” Knopp said.

“There was a respectful back-and-forth,” said Eric Doyle, co-owner of Globe Electric tattoos. “It was just shy of touchy-feely.”

“By the end, we were almost hugging,” Fatty said. “I’m kidding — don’t write that.”

Five years of fighting, and now it turned out that maybe these regulations weren’t such a big deal. They would have to see what happened when the regulators came to visit, Fatty said, but he had told the attorney he probably wouldn’t need her services after all.

He shook hands with the other artists and headed back to his shop. It was something like the tattoo you might read on someone’s arm: This too shall pass.