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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington could ban eyeball tattoos

OLYMPIA – Tattooed eyeballs are apparently rare in Washington state. A House committee was asked Wednesday to keep it that way with a bill that would ban tattoo artists from doing anything to the whites of your eyes.

They are known as scleral tattoos because they scratch or dye the sclera, the white outer layer of the eyeball. Just the description of the tattoos made some members of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee shudder.

“Everybody’s creeped out by this,” Chairwoman Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, told the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim.

“It’s odd, but it’s not a joke,” Tharinger said. “There is serious damage that can happen to people’s eyes.”

His bill would put an outright ban on the practice and provide a civil penalty of as much as $10,000 for those who give someone a scleral tattoo.

Aaron Lee, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington and a member of the state Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, outlined some possible damage. The needle used for the tattoo could puncture the cornea, damage or detach the retina or introduce an infection that could only be treated by removing the eye.

Physicians sometimes transplant sclera or graft over damaged areas, but there is no medical reason for marking or dyeing the whites of an eye a different color, he said.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that two states, Oklahoma and Indiana, and the Canadian province of Ontario have banned scleral tattoos.

Scleral tattoos are rare, but problems in a few instances have received wide attention on the internet, including the case of a Canadian model who lost sight in her eye because of a botched session.

Lee, who also works at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, said he’s never seen a scleral tattoo in his practice. But he thinks the dangers they pose warrant legislative action. Just posting a warning for customers at any tattoo parlor that wants to provide one wouldn’t be enough, he told lawmakers, because it would be hard for people to understand the risks they are taking.

“Of all the bills you have this year, I hope this is the easiest,” Lee said.

It might be. No one spoke against the proposal or defended scleral tattoos at Wednesday’s hearing. The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Friday.