Arkansas lawmaker tries to ban tattoo-shop practices 

click to enlarge Sen. Missy Irvin image
  • Brian Chilson

Though Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) is a staunch advocate of small government, she has sponsored a bill banning certain body modification practices, leading some artists and consumers to complain that the legislation would restrict their freedom to make adult choices.

The bill prohibits scarification and dermal implants. Scarification is a non-ink skin marking that forms scars for decorative purposes, while the bill defines dermal implants as "insertion of an object under the skin of a live human being for ornamentation or decoration." (The ban is on licensed professionals in the body-art industry, so plastic surgeons can breathe easy.)

The bill was first brought to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee at the end of last month. It was the day after the new "private option" deal for Medicaid expansion was announced and officials from the state Department of Human Services were there to speak to the committee about the new developments; some members, understandably, seemed less than eager to spend time on Irvin's bill. One senator openly rolled his eyes as Irvin and Health Department attorney Robert Brech testified.

Irvin's motivation, she said, was fear of staph infections — though neither Irvin nor Brech offered any evidence regarding the public health risk of the body modification procedures in the bill. They offered no data or analysis, nor did they provide any comparison with other legal activities.

Rather, Irvin and Brech employed an "ew, gross" strategy. They particularly harped on the gritty details of a "tongue-splitting" that was performed in Little Rock, even though that would not be impacted one way or the other by the legislation.

Irvin told the committee, "If you review the pictures of scarification, it's an interesting technique but very problematic." As for dermal implants, Irvin mentioned "spikes and things like that" and "peel[ing] back the skin." Committee members audibly groaned. At one point she compared scarification, a practice that some adults in the U.S. choose for themselves, to female genital mutilation in Africa.

Misty Forsberg — a licensed tattoo and piercing artist from Fort Smith — testified convincingly that the definitions in the bill were contradictory and vague and said that Irvin's descriptions of the practices were inaccurate. Forsberg said the bill failed to address the more intensive forms of implants the Health Department intended to target and, as written, the bill was so broad that it would ban navel piercings.

Forsberg said scarification, which is common in some cultures, had been a worldwide industry for 10 years and that it should be regulated, not banned, which would only send it to an unregulated black market.

"If it's passed you'll see professionals cease to do it," she said. "Professionals like myself won't break the law to do it. It will be left to untrained individuals underground ... a ban on it will only increase the danger of having untrained individuals perform it on the public and leaving that public with no safe way to pursue this art."

As for health risks, she testified that they are "equivalent in the depth and comparable in risk to that of a tattoo without ink. The result is the intentional application of scars for the purpose of decoration. The state's fear of high infection rates is unfounded, as the initial healing time is faster than even that of many basic body piercings."

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) asked whether the procedures should be considered invasive surgery. Brech responded that he thought tongue-splitting was invasive surgery, though the bill doesn't apply to tongue-splitting.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) wanted to make sure that the ban wouldn't apply to branding, which is a practice followed by some African-American fraternities. She was told it does not, though branding is itself a form of scarification.


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