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Tattoo craze stirs concern about public health

States struggle to find the balance between regulation and freedom of expression.

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Julia Roberts has one.

So did Winston Churchill's mother.

Even Barbie had one (that is, until parents got wind of it).

Tattoos are turning up everywhere. What was once confined to the biceps of salty sailors and leather-clad bikers is now peeking out from under bankers' suits, pro jerseys, and Oscar gowns. Some say the number of Americans sporting tattoos is as high as 15 percent.

As tattooing and other types of body art - piercing, scarification, branding - become more mainstream and more popular, officials in states and cities across the US are scrutinizing shops that perform such services.

Most states are crying, "stricter regulations." Alaska, for one, last week got a bill to let the state regulate and inspect tattoo and body-piercing shops. In Colorado, a bill to outlaw tattooing or piercing anyone under 18 without a parent's permission is moving through the legislature.

A few states - such as Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and South Carolina - still outlaw tattooing. Now, Massachusetts is a test of states' ability to deny the practice in this age of acceptance.

Assault on tattoo ban

The 38-year ban here is being bombarded on all sides. Some lawmakers are looking to legalize tattooing. And the American Civil Liberties Union has brought a lawsuit on behalf of two Martha's Vineyard tattoo artists, who also want tattooing to be legal.

"I'm not a fan of tattoos," says state Rep. David Tuttle, who introduced the House bill. "But there's a tremendous underground market in tattooing here. Why not legalize it, regulate it, and ensure it's done properly?"

Mr. Tuttle's bill would legalize tattooing for anyone 18 or older and would also regulate the body-piercing business. This would safeguard public health better than an "arcane" law, he says.

While Tuttle's daughter is still only a toddler, he knows that teenage girls are one of the fastest-growing groups sporting ankle tattoos, navel rings, and pierced tongues. "If my daughter turns 18 and decides she wants a tattoo, I want her to get it done in a facility that is clean and regularly inspected," he says.


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