S. Carolina: No Tattoo's Here!
Debbie Brannigan (Email Author)
"Never say never". That has been my mantra these days. Ten years ago it seems I had a never ending list of things that "I'll never (fill in blank)". One of those was "I'll never get a tattoo." I would have sworn to it back then. Well here I am, in my late 30's, getting a tattoo. It was not a rash decision made while finishing off rounds of tequila in the bar. No, actually, it was a very long thought process with much research. Those who know Tara and me personally know that we had a very rough and challenging time just a few years back. This tattoo was a personal marker of that time and how we came through it. Like most people who get tattoos, it is a very personal statement that marks a significant chapter of your life.
Perhaps this is why I find the tattoo ban of South Carolina so absurd. It seems outrageous that in the Land of the Free, there is a law prohibiting self expression on your very own body. No, this is not one of those antiquated laws that nobody pays attention to, like not being allowed to go hatless in public on a Sunday. No, this is a very real and every enforced law.
Sect. 16-17-700 (S.C. Code of Laws)
"It is unlawful for a person to tattoo any part of the body of another person. It is not unlawful for a licensed physician or surgeon to tattoo part of a patient's body if in his medical opinion it is necessary when performing cosmetic or reconstructive surgery."
I can't help but laugh at the image of my doctor performing a pap smear, and then scrubbing up for a "tattoo procedure". I don't know any physicians that can write a prescription clearly and I can't imagine what a tattoo by one would be like. Considering it is only permitted when deemed medically necessary, I don't suppose many will find out what creative talents their doctors may possess.
"Certainly this is not being enforced" you may say. Oh, but it is! Consider the case of Mr. Ron White. Ron is a talented and dedicated tattoo artist currently living in Florence, S.C. In 2000, WBTW-TV was filming a 3-part series on the history and practice of tattooing. The station asked White to demonstrate the process. On camera, in his own home, he tattooed the arm of a willing participant. When the program aired, the county sheriff arrested White and he was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of $2,500. This was later reduced to 5 years of probation and a $500 fine. Now Ron White can't carry his firearms, drink in a bar, or leave the state without prior permission from his probation officer.
White appealed his conviction all the way to the S.C. Supreme Court. He contested that tattooing is an art form and should be protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court did not see it that way and on March 4th, they upheld his conviction. Undeterred, Ron's next move was on to the US Supreme Court. An international law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, took up Rons cause and is providing him with legal services free of charge. His lawyer is none other than Kenneth Starr who became well known when he headed up the investigation into President Clinton's Whitewater real estate development and former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. "In a free society, this is intolerable." says Starr.
South Carolina is one of only two states that ban tattooing entirely. Oklahoma is the other.
South Carolinians who wish to get tattooed must either cross the border or do it illegally. People are doing it in basements and backrooms and this can only increase the risk of disease. Tattoo artists like White would like to see the state create health regulations for the practice to ensure public safety. They would like to be allowed to operate a business and claim that the state is only losing out on revenue to its neighboring states, N. Carolina and Georgia.
Opponents to this ban have an ally in the S. Carolina State Senate: Sen. William Mescher, R-Berkeley. Mescher says he would like to bring tattooing out of the underworld of basements and garages, and let the Dept of Health and Environmental Control regulate it. He has introduced legislation over and over for several years in an attempt to lift the ban. The medical community and DHEC support Mescher's measures, as does the Governor's office. So where is the resistance? For as long as Mescher has tried to legalize tattooing, Jake Knotts has stood in his way. Jake Knotts is a Lexington Republican who served many years in the SC House of Representatives before recently winning a special election to the State Senate. Knotts bases his opposition to tattooing on what he claims is a biblical mandate against marking the body. "It's spelled out very vividly in the Bible that tattooing is taboo" Knotts has said. "I am opposed to it and it ain't gonna pass. I'll do whatever I got to do to stop it. " It is mentalities like this that make me thankful for Separation of Church and State.
I found it hard to believe that this ban was enforced and upheld purely by personal religious opposition and attempted to find the documented reasoning behind the law. I naturally contacted Sen. Mescher's office and expected the usual brush off. Not the case. I was helped by Sen Mescher's very informative assistant, Debbie Griffin. Not only did I get her direct phone number and email address, she also faxed over countless documents and articles. I was surprised to see that the only wording documented is the brief paragraph of text that I listed above (sect 16-17-700). There is never any mention as to WHY this ban was approved. It is assumed that it was originally a health concern. In the 1960's nearly all states banned tattooing after a hepatitis outbreak was blamed on a dirty tattoo parlor in New York. By the 1980's those prohibitions had all vanished, except in S. Carolina and Oklahoma. It is ridiculous to think that you can pierce any imaginable body part and ride your motorcycle without a he lmet but you cannot adorn yourself with a tattoo in S. Carolina.
Tattooing is an ancient art form that can be traced back to Egypt 8,000 years ago. Celtic tribes used plant pigments for tattooing in early cultures and the oldest proof of tattooing can be found on the body of a 5,300 year old "iceman". Tattooing is the oldest form self expression and individuality. In modern day America tattoos have progressed from the bad-ass-biker-gang image to a more main stream and even chic persona. The fastest growing category of tattoo clients in America is the suburban upper class female aged 35-45 years. Not quite the same clientele you'd see in tattoo parlors of the 50's and 60's. Thus, most parlors today are the high tech and sterile environments that this new clientele would prefer and expect. There appears to be little risk that tattooing presents a serious problem in public health. According to a dermatologist in the Federal Office of Cosmetics and Colors the most common problem with tattoos is not infection but dissatisfaction. As for myself, I am completely satis fied with my own tattoo. Not only with the artwork itself but also with the artist, Jen Billings, and the clean and friendly parlor: "Atlas Tattoo" of Portland, OR. I could not imagine having to go across state lines or in some back alley to have it done.
For Ron White and Ken Starr, the legal battle continues. On October 7th the U.S. Supreme Court denied to review the case. Their case is now pending in Federal Habias Court. In the meantime, there is some hope of repeal through the legislative process. Previously, Sen. Mescher's bill would pass only to die in the House at the hands of Rep. Knotts. Now that Jake Knotts was elected to the state senate in April, there is little opposition left in the House.
If you are reading this and living in S. Carolina, I would suggest you contact your local congressman and voice an opinion on this ban. For Ron White the road to justice must seem long and frustrating. He will continue his probation restrictions and wait for the day he can actually ply his trade as a valid businessman and recognized artist.
Until then, the 1st Amendment will protect the art but jail the artist in S. Carolina.