By Terisa Green, Ph.D.
Originally published in the New York Times
July 24, 2005
THIS week, officials from Suffolk County’s Board of Health are scheduled to meet for a second time to discuss the possibility of banning certain types of tattoos and body piercing. Depending on what they decide, the officials could call for the outright ban of nipple, genital, nose and tongue piercing, as well as permanent eye makeup, tongue splitting, branding, scarification and other procedures.
The board members are reacting to health risks that they say are on the rise because of the growing popularity of body modification. But making tattoos and piercing illegal isn’t the answer, nor has it ever been. Instead, the regulations that are already in place should simply be reviewed, and a public awareness program should be started to educate the public about their responsibilities in altering their bodies.
Body modification is an ancient art form — one that should be respected rather than denounced. Contrary to splashy headlines that proclaim how extreme body modifications are becoming, there is actually very little being done today that hasn’t been done in the past.
The first evidence for tattoo tools may come from the Upper Paleolithic period, some 12,000 years ago. Scarification, a procedure in which scalpels and other sharp instruments are used to generate permanent scar tissue, is thousands of years old, as is ear-lobe stretching. If today’s body modifiers wanted ideas for nose piercings, they could look at the artwork of the ancient Maya. Although labrets, shell or bone ornaments worn in a perforation of the lip, haven’t proved popular recently, they were once all the rage among the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.
Although our perception of whether something is mainstream or extreme changes over time, body modification persists and will probably continue to do so, despite bans. Prohibitions against tattooing by virtually all of the major religions at some point in their histories, for example, has done little to dim their attractiveness to adherents of those religions. In short, bans don’t work, especially for something that seems as entrenched and as defining as piercing and tattooing.
And unfortunately, the effect of bans is often quite the opposite of what was intended, because bans force people to take their behavior underground. If we accept that people who want to modify their bodies are going to do so whether or not it is legal, then those people will be getting piercings and tattoos in an unregulated environment. There would be nothing to compel artists to use costly sterilization equipment, no inspections of facilities and no classes in sterile techniques.
Nevertheless, whether the procedures are aboveboard or underground, infections happen. Any time that skin is punctured or cut, bacterial and viral infections can take hold. But prevention is not complicated. Sterile techniques are the standard in the body art industry today, not the exception. Single-use materials, sterilized equipment and education about blood-borne pathogens are now commonplace.
In fact, the success of practicing sterile techniques is reflected in a recent change to the American Red Cross’s blood donation guidelines. The previous 12-month wait after a tattoo no longer applies if the tattooing was performed according to state regulations. To date, there is no known case of H.I.V. transmission that can be traced to a tattoo.
As for hepatitis, the cause for a previous ban on tattooing in New York City in 1961, the Centers for Disease Control report that “tattooing is not a risk factor for acquiring acute hepatitis B or hepatitis C.” Granted, tongue splitting and branding are not the same as tattooing, but the same principles of infection prevention apply.
If the goal is to protect public health, then instead of banning certain types of body modification, Suffolk officials should create a dialogue with professionals in the body art industry. Suffolk, like Nassau County and New York City, already licenses its tattoo parlors and requires all artists to complete a course on infection control, and New York State bars juveniles from getting tattoos without written parental consent.
But regulations alone won’t make body modification safe, clients need to inform themselves about the consequences of their body modifications and be educated about infection prevention. They need to ask about the sterilization techniques that are used, and they need to have done enough research to understand what is and isn’t acceptable sterilization. It is also up to the client to follow any care instructions provided by the studio and promote the healing of any type of skin alteration.
People have gravitated to body piercing and tattooing for a variety of reasons, including rites of passage, group identity, display of wealth, medical therapy and beautification. Suffolk County health officials shouldn’t ban this art form no matter how extreme they may think it is. Instead they should focus on working with body artists to ensure that regulations are followed and to educate people about their responsibilities in choosing to alter their bodies.