Some local tattoo artists are expressing frustration with the cursory inspections of their shops since Illinois took the responsibility of inspections from the Champaign-Urbana health district two years ago.
“Now, (state inspectors) come in, take a look around and that’s it,” said Matt Stines, owner of No Regrets Tattoo & Body Piercing in downtown Champaign. “I always try to stay above the standards — and just because they’re not doing it doesn’t mean I’m not going to.”
If a tattoo is performed in an unsafe way – such as the use of used or expired needles or dirty equipment – bacterial and viral infections can occur, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA said those practices could lead to hepatitis infections, HIV or scarring.
State and county inspections of tattoo shops in Champaign-Urbana have found expired single-use needle packages, missing expiration dates on sterilization packages, a nonfunctional hand sink and registration cards not posted in locations visible to customers.
Loophole in the law
Tattoo shop owners are also concerned that a loophole in the current tattoo law, Illinois’ Tattoo and Body Piercing Establishment Registration Act, means the Illinois Department of Public Health cannot penalize shops that have not registered with the state.
They say that unregistered shops are detrimental to the tattoo industry.
Six of seven tattoo shops in Champaign-Urbana are currently registered with the Illinois Department of Public Health. The seventh shop said it is in the process of registering. That is marked improvement over July 2013, when only five of 12 tattoo shops were registered. Since then, shops have opened, closed or merged.
In the first half of 2013, the Champaign Urbana Public Health District was in charge of conducting tattoo shop inspections. Since the law only allows inspections of registered tattoo shops, the public health district was only able to monitor the five registered shops.
“Once something is declared unsafe, it’s not legal anymore,” said Ray Allen Hughes Sr., owner of Champaign Tattoo on Neil Street. He worries about the legality of the tattoo industry if improvements in the law are not made.
“The art form is being degraded” when tattoo artists do not register, Hughes said.
Public health district drops inspections
The public health district decided not to renew its body art agreement with the Illinois Department of Public Health in July 2013, making the state responsible for inspecting tattoo shops, said Jim Roberts, the environmental health director of the public health district, in an email.
In the Champaign Urbana Public Health District’s last five months of oversight leading up to July 2013, it conducted eight inspections, five of which were renewal inspections.
Stines said the health district should have continued oversight.
“Just abandoning the program is silly,” said Stines of the No Regrets tattoo shop.
Since August 2013, the state has conducted four inspections of tattoo shops in Champaign-Urbana. All of these were initial, not renewal, inspections.
Currently, 54 local health departments covering 65 of 102 counties in Illinois have a body art agreement with the state, allowing local health departments to conduct inspections.
Melaney Arnold, a public information officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state encourages local health departments to have their own body art programs.
“They’re the boots on the ground,” Arnold said. “They know their communities better and they can find places easier that are not registered.”
But for those counties that do not have their own programs, the state does the best it can with the law it upholds.
The state has about 10 people that conduct inspections at tattoo shops, as well as at other establishments like tanning salons, Arnold said.
She said the biggest challenge the state faces is the limitations of the law on registration.
“The situation in Champaign is not unique. Any time anything is brought to light, we reach out to inform that these places need to be registered,” Arnold said.
“We can sit there and provide [tattoo shops] information until they’re blue in the face,” she added.
But the state’s authority ends there.
Bill proposed to close loophole
A bill proposed by Illinois State Representative John Anthony would close the loophole in the law.
In February, Anthony proposed amending the registration act to allow the Illinois Department of Public Health to fine tattoo shops failing to register with the state or renew their registrations.
“We have to make sure that [tattoo shops] are safe and secure,” Anthony said in a phone interview.
The bill passed the Illinois House of Representatives and is making its way through the Senate.
Since Representative Anthony’s bill would make registration enforcement possible, the Champaign Urbana Public Health District may consider conducting inspections again, said Julie Pryde, the administrator of the public health district.
“Our problem just had to do with the fact that some places would register and others wouldn’t, and it made the law not useful,” Pryde said. “We’re waiting for the loophole in the law to be closed up.”
Jim Roberts, the environmental health director for the public health district, said, “The next step would be to look and see if there would be an agent of the state to do that program again.”
Stines said he would support the public health district renewing its body art agreement.
“We’ve agreed to play ball,” Stines said of local tattoo shops’ compliance with the registration requirement. “Now the city should do the inspections again.”