To open a tattoo shop in Minnesota, an owner needs money, ink, needles and a clientele, to name only the obvious essentials. But, in much of the state, a license or training isn't on the list.

A bill in the Legislature -- which has drawn both the support and the ire of tattoo artists -- would change that.

"That there's not more of a groundswell of understanding, that this boom industry is completely unregulated -- to me, it's difficult to comprehend," said Ryan Welles, a former tattoo artist who worked in Duluth, Stillwater and upstate New York.

The estimated 750 body art practitioners and 250 establishments in Minnesota aren't regulated by the state, though a number of Minnesota cities and counties -- including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hennepin County -- have ordinances. Federal occupational-health and safety regulations also apply to the artists' methods.

The bill would mandate standard health-related practices for artists and require training and inspections. If local regulations met or exceeded the bill's requirements, providers would be exempt from the license requirement but still subject to inspection.

Supporters say the bill would protect the health of patrons who visit these increasingly mainstream businesses. Opponents call the changes burdensome, unnecessary and even anti-competitive.

Health issues

Dr. Bruce Bart, a dermatologist at Hennepin County Medical Center, said health concerns are inherent in giving and receiving a tattoo.

"These people are actually penetrating the skin," he said, which allows for the spread of hepatitis B if contaminated instruments are used. "They certainly should be knowledgeable about potential risks and techniques which they're using."

Bart said that while infections from tattoos are rare, they happen.

Tom Hiendlmayr, health occupations program director at the Minnesota Department of Health, said there have been no known instances in the state where tattooing or piercing alone has been the source of blood-borne pathogens such as HIV or hepatitis.

Blood banks such as the Red Cross and Memorial Blood Centers remain cautious, however, deferring donors who have gotten a tattoo in the past year, as a precaution.

The sponsor of the bill in the state Senate, Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said she was approached by constituents about the need for regulation. She said she hadn't known that the industry was unregulated.

Welles is one of those constituents, calling the bill a "proactive measure." He has seen people with tattoos where he could tell the artist wasn't technically skilled, which, he said, can mean they skipped out on safe health practices as well.

Not the first attempt

This isn't the first attempt to regulate the body art industry in Minnesota. Similar bills were introduced last session but didn't reach the floor. Prettner Solon said her proposal could be included in a larger bill, but a companion bill in the House stalled after a tie vote by a licensing panel. 

"It was regulating something that nobody's come forward to talk about regulating," said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, a panel member who voted against the bill. "There was no information to suggest there's been a problem."

Under the bill, an establishment would pay $1,000 for a three-year license and each artist would pay $100 annually for a license.

Artists on both sides of the bill say that, as an industry, body art shops have been good self-regulators. Nonetheless, Dwayne Holt, a tattoo artist and shop manager at Anchor's End Tattoo in Duluth, said it's "2009 now; there should be regulation in this industry."

"It's not a good thing that any guy with a couple thousand dollars can just open a shop," he said. "You couldn't go and get your hair cut by someone who just picked up the scissors this morning."

Tanika and Don Nolan, 20-year owners of St. Paul-based ACME Tattoo Co., have become the loyal opposition, collecting hundreds of signatures on a petition asking lawmakers to hold off on the bill.

They don't oppose regulation. They have been advocating for state regulation for years. But Tanika Nolan says this bill simply isn't the right answer and needs more input from the industry.

One concern, she said, is that the bill is too broad, providing regulations and guidelines that go beyond public health. One provision, for example, would require that each workstation have 45 square feet of floor space. Tanika Nolan said that's unnecessary and could make it harder to enter the profession, potentially pushing some practitioners underground.

Blood banks, though, have their own stake in the bill. If a tattoo were applied in a state-regulated shop, a donor wouldn't have to wait a year to give blood, but rather just long enough to make sure there were no infections.

That could help provide what is a constant need for blood, Geoff Kaufmann, CEO for the North Central Blood Services Region of the American Red Cross, said at a Capitol hearing.

"They want to donate," he said, "and certainly they're not afraid of needles."

Jake Grovum is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.