State tattooing laws differ throughout the U.S. Some states leave regulation up to cities and counties, making it even more confusing.
Why Regulate Tattoos?
There are two main reasons for tattoo laws. The first is the legislators who don't like tattoos and who think they're immoral or wrong. These legislators may use their influence to make tattoos illegal or put restrictions on them. The second, and more common, reason is health concerns.
If the shop isn't clean and the equipment isn't sterilized, getting a tattoo can be risky. Blood-borne infections like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS can be transmitted by a tattoo needle that's been used on another person. Inks can harbor viruses or bacteria, if they're used on multiple people. Dirty surfaces in the shop and unwashed hands are also sources of potential infection.
Legal in All 50 States
Oklahoma was the last holdout with tattooing still outlawed there, but as of November 1, 2006, it is legal to get a tattoo in all 50 states. However, some states such as Massachusetts let local city and county governments decide whether or not they'll allow tattoo shops. It may be city laws, not state tattooing laws, that determine whether you can get inked in your hometown. And just because tattoos are legal in a particular state or city doesn't mean just anyone can set up shop. In many places, a tattoo artist must be licensed and the shop must pass inspection, either by state or local officials. Some places merely require the artist to register with the state. Only in a few places are tattoos not regulated at all.
Many states stop at requiring that artists be licensed and that shops have good safety practices. Some locales have more stringent regulations about who can get a tattoo and of what type. Check your local laws--city, state and county--to see if any of these apply.
In some places:
- You can't get a tattoo if you're under 18.
- You can't get tattoos on certain body parts, such as the face.
- You can't get a tattoo if you're drunk.
- You can't get offensive or hateful words or images tattooed.
- You can't get tattooed at home or at a party, even if the artists is licensed, because the license applies only to the shop's location.
Your Local State Tattooing Laws
To find local tattooing laws, start with the state's web site. Every state has a health department, and many have a section on tattoos. A few states regulate tattoos under unexpected departments, such as the one that's also responsible for restaurants. For city and county laws, again try the web. Look to see if there is a local health department, or search "tattoo" on the local government's web site. You may need to get on the phone and call the local offices to get the information you need.
Take Care to Avoid Illegal Tattoos
Some artists will ignore the state tattooing laws if you're a friend. But remember, the artist is risking his or her license and could even be prosecuted for breaking the law.
You'll also find some shops, and some artists, that don't obey the laws in general. When tattooing was illegal in South Carolina, many shops operated out in the open in spite of the law. In states where it's illegal for kids under 18 to get tattooed, there are sometimes parties where tattooing is done with home-made equipment. And some people just like the "outlaw" idea of tattooing outside an official, regulated studio. The problem is, illegal tattoos are dangerous.
- Infection. Without proper sterilization equipment and correct precautions, you're at high risk for serious and potentially deadly viral infections including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. And a bad bacterial infection could scar you or even kill you.
- Bad tattoos. Home-made equipment can place the ink too deep or be hard to control, leaving you with scarring and/or an unattractive tattoo.
- Unsafe inks. Just about any colored liquid or powder can be injected under the skin to make a tattoo, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. At best, a makeshift ink may look bad, fade quickly, and/or give you a scar. At worst, it could poison you.
If you don't agree with your local or state law, your safest choice is probably to travel to a place where you can get what you want, safely and legally.
Check the Laws Each Time
Laws can change over time as many states become more lax about allowing tattooing in general, but some can become more stringent as well. Check the laws in your state each time before you get a tattoo to keep yourself safe and get your ink done right.