It takes more than dyed hair, gauged ears and a wardrobe inspired by Kat Von D to become a tattoo artist in Oregon.
Hundreds of hours and dollars can go into getting a tattoo license from the Oregon Health Licensing Agency—legally required by the state since 1993.
But many have decided to forgo the testing and training that's necessary to prevent staph infections, blood poisoning or worse for customers. A recent case marks the first time anyone has been charged in Oregon with the misdemeanor of tattooing without a license, says Kraig Bohot, a spokesman for the health licensing agency.
The charges in Coos County are in connection with the Feb. 5 death of 17-year-old Jenna Bowling in North Bend. Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier says Bowling went with a friend to get a small tattoo on her hand from Christopher Reasor, 27, at his house. She was found dead the next morning (due to complications related to her diabetes after using drugs and alcohol at the house), according to Frasier.
Although the tattooing didn't kill her, there's growing concern that illegal tattooing has become an excuse to bring other illegal activities together, says Bohot.
"She wouldn't have been there if she hadn't wanted to get a tattoo," says Bowling's mother, Diane McCauley.
Reasor was arraigned in May on four counts of tattooing without a license, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a penalty of one year in county jail for each charge and a $6,200 fine if convicted. He pleaded guilty on July 14 to one of the tattooing charges and will be sentenced Aug. 2.
Reasor also is facing civil penalties from the OHLA that could total up to $15,000 on top of the criminal penalties, says his attorney, John Trew
"When I first started here," says Bohot, who's been at the licensing agency since 2003, "we were hearing about all these hack jobs and horror stories, but no one would follow up on it.... You could call this a turning point."
Fred Lenzser, a senior deputy district attorney with the Multnomah County DA's office says that, although he is aware of the misdemeanor, he can't recall anyone being charged with it locally.
The number of complaints to the OHLA about unlicensed tattooing has risen sharply in recent years statewide. From 2004 to 2008, eight people a year on average filed complaints. In 2009, that average increased nearly fivefold to 39 complaints (seven in Portland). Bohot says the agency assessed 36 penalties totaling $34,500.
Bohot says that both the failing economy and the accessibility of the Internet (13 of those 39 complaints last year involved Craigslist ads) may be responsible for the dramatic increase.
"The more the public is educated the more these people who are practicing illegally and endangering public safety will hopefully lose their business," says Jami Bond, one of 703 licensed tattoo artists in Oregon.
Bond works as an artist at Forbidden Body Art in Northeast Portland and as an instructor at Forbidden School of Body Art. She's seen her fair share of hack jobs from customers who come in after getting a tattoo from an unlicensed person, having experienced problems like hepatitis, serious scarring, and even blood poisoning.
"That person more often than not has no background on health and safety," Bond says of her unlicensed counterparts.
Genee Coleman asked Bond two months ago to fix up three tattoos, of a rose on her thigh, a butterfly on her arm and a dragon on her back, which she got nine years ago, when she was 13, from an unlicensed artist. The dragon tattoo left Coleman with so much scar tissue covering her back that she is afraid to get it redone.
"You might think you're getting a cheap tattoo," she says, "but you'll end up spending even more money getting it corrected."
Bond says many newcomers to Oregon don't know it's illegal to tattoo without a license here. But licensing officials tell a different story. They say it's likely some lawbreakers worry that the OHLA notifies law enforcement if it finds other illegalities. They also cite law enforcement's relative unfamiliarity with the criminal misdemeanor of illegal tattooing.
To be licensed in Oregon, one must complete 360 hours of training in everything from basic aseptic technique to hands-on practice at one of 31 accredited schools in Oregon and take a two-part written exam. Going to tattoo school can cost more than $1,000, and the licensing process can set you back about $400.
So, ordering a starter kit online for $100 and advertising on Craigslist may be a more attractive option to some. But Bohot says that even if his agency cracks down more on unlicensed tattooing, it lacks authority to regulate the sale of tattoo supplies online or in specialty shops.
The agency has long-term plans to start giving presentations about tattoo safety in high schools. Forbidden Body Art even started posting warnings on Craigslist to stay away from anyone offering cheap tattoos on the website.
"You don't want to overdramatize, and I don't want to sound like Chicken Little," says Bohot. "But people really do have to be careful."
The Oregon Health Licensing Agency also licenses body piercing, electrology and hair design.