July 3, 1997 in Nation/World

Taking On Tattoos Parents, States Grapple With Problem Of Permanent Body Decorations On Teens.

Tonya Jameson Knight-Ridder
 

A suburban Maryland mother has been taking her 13-year-old son to a clinic for a painstaking procedure that could take a year to complete. The goal: removal of a fist-sized bulldog tattooed on his chest.

Sally Dietrich says she screamed when she first saw the bulldog. Then she got active. She complained loudly to the media, the police and lawmakers about her son’s ability to get a tattoo without her permission.

Dietrich is not alone. Young people are pursuing new frontiers of body decoration, parents are screaming, and states across America are enacting laws aimed at stopping the practice.

Within the last 12 months, the states of Virginia, Arizona, Montana and New Hampshire have passed or implemented legislation limiting or forbidding juvenile tattoos.

And four more states - Delaware, Indiana, Missouri and New York - are considering similar legislation.

Most of those new laws include penalties that range from fines to incarceration for individuals who tattoo young people without their parents’ permission.

The new Montana law is typical. A minor there cannot receive a tattoo unless the parent is present and gives signed consent. State inspectors will check tattoo records, and violators could lose their license.

Dr. Joel Wilentz, a dermatologist in Hallandale, Fla., who has crusaded against teen tattoos for several years, says he believes such laws are important for medical and social reasons.

He and others are concerned about hygiene and the adult consequences of a youthful decision on something as permanent as a tattoo.

“Obviously, in minors it’s tough for them to be judgmental and have the proper attitude,” Wilentz said. “A kid can’t be judgmental about how clean the area is, about the disease factor.”

Suzanne Boulter, president of the New Hampshire Academy of Pediatrics, supports her state’s new tattoo law. Unclean needles and equipment can lead to Hepatitis B, AIDS and bacterial infections, she said.

Despite such fears, tattoos are visibly popular with many young people.

Children tend to gravitate toward things that are considered only for adults like smoking and sex, explained Lyle Tuttle, a California tattoo artist who has written books on tattoo history.

Tattooing is something that adults do. So, kids will use fake identification and everything else possible to get one, he said.

“It’s just a normal healthy desire,” he said.

Tattoos are made with an instrument that uses a vibrating needle to insert ink into the skin. Nobody has any idea just how many people get tattooed each year. But the business is clearly thriving.

In 1992, the National Tattoo Association capped its membership at 1,000. The Professional Tattoo Artist Guild, which includes some tattoo equipment suppliers, has more than 5,000 members. There is little overlap between the two organizations.

In the 1940s, tattoo parlors were typically in amusement arcades and pool halls. Now, more and more tattoo outlets can be seen in suburban strip centers and other locations more convenient to middle-class young people.

And a growing proportion of those tattooed are women.

Entertainers like Janet Jackson, Drew Barrymore and Vivica Fox have tattoos. And several female athletes, such as Tora Suber of the Charlotte Sting WNBA basketball league, have them. Fashion magazines and music videos feature tattooed women.

Women are saying, “It’s the ‘90s and I’m going to do what I want do,” said Angela Showell, a 26-year-old Washington paralegal who has her name tattooed on her thigh and two small hearts on her chest.

Early tattooing decisions can turn ugly when a loved one hits the road or one’s idea of beauty changes.

“No one’s permanent,” said tattoo artist Bill Peoples, sitting below a Norman Rockwell print of a man tattooing “Betty” on a sailor’s arm, which had six other names crossed out.

Peoples, the owner of Hysterical Tattoos in Ellicott City, Md., doesn’t tattoo children even if they do have parental consent. “They’re still kids, they’re changing,” he said.

Those who come to regret their tattoo decisions often find themselves visiting places like the Cosmetic Laser Clinic in Bethesda, Md.

The clinic’s plastic surgeons and dermatologists have removed tattoos from 7,000 patients since it opened in 1992.

Tattoos are removed at the clinic in 20-minute laser sessions. Professional tattoos require two to six treatments, which cost a total of $150 to $350. The cross is the symbol most often removed, said Anthony Thatcher, the clinic’s executive director. Green is the most difficult color to remove.

About 46 percent of the clinic’s customers are women, Thatcher said. Women usually got their tattoos before age 20 and had them removed before 30.

“It doesn’t fit their life as it is now,” Thatcher said. “They’re not the rockers that they were in college. They are serious business women, and they want to be taken seriously.”

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