County braces for a wave of L.A. ink
May 24, 2012
Since 1998, Roger “Rabb!t” Rodriguez has been a professional body artist. Piercing, tattooing, branding—he’s seen it all. But in all his time in Greater Los Angeles, in studios from West Hollywood to Pasadena, there’s one thing he has yet to encounter: A health inspection.
That’s about to change this summer.
Starting July 1, California counties will begin enforcing comprehensive state standards for tattooing, body piercing and permanent cosmetics. The Safe Body Art Act, passed in October, is expected to finally bring some uniformity to a municipal patchwork that for decades has hindered widespread regulation of the burgeoning body art industry.
Public health officials applaud the measure, as do most established artists because unsafe practices in piercing and tattooing can lead to HIV and hepatitis. But the new law also promises to dramatically ramp up enforcement, and at the Department of Public Health, the county’s tiny Body Art Unit is braced for big changes.
“This is probably going to quadruple our workload,” says Cole Landowski, head of the county’s environmental hygiene program.
Once a sign of rebellion, tattoos and piercings have increasingly become mainstream, adorning bodies of all ages. Celebrities have taken the industry upscale, and even reality TV has gotten into the act, chronicling the exploits of high profile artists such Los Angeles’ Kat Von D.
Oversight has struggled to keep pace, however. Until this year, California law mandated only that body art businesses register with their respective counties and receive a copy of sterilization and sanitation guidelines.
Counties were free to impose ordinances that went further, but most didn’t. Riverside County, for instance, didn’t regulate body artists until last year, after its lack of enforcement was taken up by a grand jury. Meanwhile, efforts to legislate minimum statewide standards repeatedly failed amid arguments that such regulation would drive away businesses.
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), who helped push through the new law, noted after it passed that manicurists “need 400 hours of training before they can cut your nails, yet until [now], tattooists and piercers have had no training requirements to stick a needle in you.”
Los Angeles County was, for many years, one of the few to regulate piercing and tattoo parlors. “We’ve recognized this as a public health issue for a long time,” says Terri Williams, assistant director of the Environmental Health Division of the Department of Public Health.
The county passed an ordinance in 1999 requiring practitioners to not only register, but also obtain a county health permit and receive blood-borne pathogen training. Facility owners also had to obtain health permits and adhere to standards of design, maintenance and sanitation.
But the county ordinance only extended to unincorporated areas and the 14 smaller cities that opted into the county requirements. The rest of the county’s 88 cities, including the City of Los Angeles, had little, if any regulation beyond business licenses and zoning restrictions.
“I’ve been doing this for 14 years professionally and at no time do I ever recall being inspected,” says Rodriguez, a nationally known piercing artist whose current shop, Ancient Adornments, is a West Hollywood fixture.
Rodriguez’ various workplaces were outside the county’s jurisdiction, but even within it, enforcement was a challenge. At last count, some 480 facilities were licensed in the unincorporated county and contract cities, Williams says, and those are just the ones operating in the open. Rodriguez and others note that many more body artists work underground, setting up un-permitted shop in homes and barrooms.
The three environmental hygienists doing body art regulation must squeeze between 10 and 25 inspections a month into their other duties, which range from noise and odor complaints to asbestos and mold inspections.
“Our hands are pretty full—actually, they’re really full, ” says Francis Pierce, who does most of the county’s body art inspections. (For the record, Pierce has no tattoos or piercings, although he jokes that “several hundred people have offered to do it, for free, even, but what can I say? I’m 53 years old and I have no tats.”)
Now comes the new law, which will require body artists from throughout the county not only to obtain health permits by July 1, but also to renew them annually instead of every three years.
County public health officials know they’ve got a huge challenge ahead of them, given the size of the Body Art Unit and the mounting numbers of establishments that will require inspections. The unit will be responsible for every city except Pasadena, Long Beach and Vernon, which have their own health departments. That means the unit could see its caseload quadruple to as many as 2,000 establishments covered by the new law.
“We suspect that we’ve just been hitting the tip of the iceberg, as it is,” says Landowski. “Who knows what we’re going to run into in the cities? Some of those parlors in Hollywood are the size of postage stamps. Then there’s Venice. . .”
Still, Williams says she’s confident her squad, which she expects to grow by five staffers, can handle the job. Already, the department has been assembling a database, putting together registration packets for establishments and artists, hosting training sessions and doing outreach.
“We’re going to do this well, and be organized in what we do,” she says. Admittedly, it will take time (“They may not all show up saying, ‘Yoo-hoo! We’re here for our health inspection!’”), and everything might not get done before July 1.
But, she says, “we’re looking forward to a positive working relationship. In my experience, it’s a very cooperative industry.”
Rodriguez, the body artist, says he welcomes the scrutiny.
As a member of professional organizations and a former emergency medical technician, he has made scrupulous sanitation his hallmark, but resents being undercut by competitors who endanger the public with careless work and subpar jewelry.
“A lot of artists have no clue,” he says. “They’re just Joe Schmoe, working at a tattoo shop. Putting the public first—that’s what the benefit of this law is going to be.”