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Under Their Skin : Robust Tattoo Industry Raises Concerns of Officials, Artists


Roseanne has one peeping from her cleavage. One of Cher's is planted on her derriere. And Axel Rose bears his on his biceps.

Tattoos have become popular novelties, decorating bellies and gracing buns of steel. As they have become mainstream trademarks, tattoo parlors have been popping up throughout the state.

Across Orange County, the number of tattoo outlets has grown from six to about 14 in the past two years. Not everyone has been pleased.

Concerned local officials, unable to stem the tide, contend that tattoos present a threat to public health and are scurrying to enact zoning and sanitation regulations.

The County Board of Supervisors recently approved a revised version of a 12-year-old ordinance that sets sanitation and sterilization standards for tattoo parlors. It details requirements for maintenance of the premises and the equipment, including sterilization and use of disposable needles, and county inspection procedures.

Nine Orange County cities with tattoo shops have adopted this model for their own ordinances. Laguna Beach, where several of Orange County's oldest and most reputable studios have existed for a dozen years under more lax regulations, now is considering the county model.

And Mission Viejo, where no parlors exist, is busy drafting zoning ordinances to restrict any in the future.

Some tattoo operators maintain that the public health concern is a smoke screen to outlaw their operations.

"These are exclusionary tactics," Newport Beach store owner Chris Sexton said. "They are just out to eliminate this type of business."

Sexton said he lost roughly $4,000 over nine months last year when he tried to open a tattoo parlor in Huntington Beach, his hometown.

In that city, a tattoo parlor is classified as an adult business. Zoning codes require that they be at least 200 feet from residential areas, 500 feet from public or private schools and 1,000 feet from any other adult business.

After Sexton paid a non-refundable $1,700 permit fee, a city inspector assessed the proposed site. City planners later rejected Sexton's plan, saying that although it met the codes, they thought it was too close to a nearby neighborhood.

Sexton finally went to Newport Beach, where he opened his shop in a matter of days. Like most other cities, Newport Beach doesn't require a permit fee and labels tattoo operations as personal services.

"The licensing fees weren't the main reasons for us leaving," Sexton said. "It was the way they strung us along and harassed us. What we do is an art form and we didn't want to be viewed as a dirty place where a 12-year-old could walk in and be violated."

Huntington Beach city planner Mike Strange said he didn't know why tattoo parlors were classified as adult businesses.

While Sexton argues that ordinances such as Huntington Beach's are unjustly squeezing out safe and legitimate businesses, other seasoned tattoo artists say they're more worried about the businesses that aren't safe and legitimate.

Patty Pavlik, owner of two Orange County parlors, said the once-underground tattoo profession had been internally regulated by a ring of artists. But the tattoo craze and its lure of profit are attracting new entrepreneurs.

"The state mandates 200 hours of training to get a manicure license--but nothing to stick needles in people's skin," said Pavlik, for 18 years a tattoo operator. "People in the field today don't know and don't care about the potential dangers involved in tattooing. They enter the field because it's lucrative and with no training and apprenticeship.

"I don't blame the cities at all for implementing these regulations."

Pavlik joined Assemblywoman Valerie Brown (D-Sonoma) last year when the legislator proposed a bill that would have established state supervision of businesses that do tattoos, body piercing or permanent cosmetics.

Brown argued that these mandates would help prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis B.

"This was an extremely moderate measure to deal with industries that pose high risks to public health," she said. "In light of the risk, the extreme popularity of tattoos and pierces, it is ludicrous that it is easier to set up shop as a tattoo artist or body piercer than as a manicurist."

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson last September. State health officials said no complaints have been filed to prompt such enactment.

Brown plans to reintroduce the bill this year with what she called supportive medical data and studies.

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