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Posted on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Tattoo and piercing laws make life harder on the wrong people, say local shop owners

By Pete Cunningham


Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlour artist Brian Massey wraps the arm of Eric Zanotti, of Ann Arbor, arm after finishing a tattoo on Thursday.

Melanie Maxwell |

As Brian Massey prepares his tattooing station at Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlour in downtown Ann Arbor, his bright blue rubber gloves are just one of the many precautions he takes to ensure his own and his clients’ safety.

Sterile supplies, including single-use needles and ink pots, are neatly arranged on the reflective tray next to his chair, which resembles that of a dentist's office, except for the vibrant art that surrounds it.

Just like a dentist would, Massey has received bloodborne pathogens exposure training.

Massey did all these things long before Michigan state law made it a requirement in January of 2010.

Nothing significant has really changed for Massey or any of the other artists who work at Lucky Monkey since the passing of Public Act 375 -- which regulates tattooing, piercing and permanent cosmetics.

Massey's problem with the law is that nothing seems to have changed for those not in compliance either and he's not alone in his sentiments.

Thumbnail image for lucky-monkey-tattooing-girl.jpg

Brian Finn touches up a tattoo for Maggie Hart, of Ann Arbor, at Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlour.

Several artists and shop owners expressed concern that the laws have put the kids following the rules in school under the microscope more than ever, but ignoring those who are skipping class altogether.

“(The health department) needs to shift their focus more,” said Dana Forrester, owner of Lucky Monkey. “I’ve reported Craigslist posts and stuff like that, but nothing seems to get done about those things because they don’t have the resources or the manpower.”

“We have to jump though all these hoops -- which we do anyway -- for all these fees. But to me if there’s no enforcement of the people that aren’t following these regulations, then what’s the point?” Forrester said.

Forrester isn’t concerned about the business she might stand to lose from illegal tattoo shops. She said the hack jobs many people get at the underground shops provides Lucky Monkey with plenty of clients looking for touchups.

Dawn Cook, an artist at Depot Town Tattoo in Ypsilanti, said many of her clients are people looking to have work fixed that they received at illegal tattoo parties. Some cases are so bad, Cook said, a touchup or coverup won't help and people get laser removal instead.

"It happens a lot, actually," Cook said.


A tattoo done out of someone's home (left) compared to how it looked after a touchup at a professional facility.

Photos courtesy of Dawn Cook

Forrester said she's concerned about the public perception of the industry and safety.

“People need to be educated about the dangers of just getting a tattoo in someone’s basement and the people doing that need to be stopped,” Forrester said. “There needs to be enforcement and education and I don’t see that happening.”

Forrester would like to see the $500 annual licensing fee she pays go toward that effort.

Angela Parsons, Environmental Health Education Coordinator for the Washtenaw County Department of Public Health, said half of those fees go directly back to the health department, but admitted there still aren’t enough resources or coordination with law enforcement to crack down on underground operations.

“It is difficult because we don’t have time to proactively pursue all the illegal activity,” Parsons said. “At this point in time, it’s on a complaint basis. Unfortunately, it’s just not feasible to have someone work in that capacity.”

When complaints come in about a licensed facility committing a violation, Parsons said, it has been her goal to educate rather than fine or take steps to shutdown a facility. She said that even fines would be reserved for the most "egregious of violations."

Only five formal complaints have been filed since the new regulations were passed, three of which were for alleged tattooing at an unlicensed facility, the other two were complaints against licensed facilities.

The low number of complaints isn't reflective of the prevalence of illegal tattoo operations. A quick search on Craigslist reveals plenty of advertisements for tattoo house calls and the illegal sale of tattooing and equipment to minors.

The most recent complaint received by the health department reflects what some shop owners see as another shortcoming of the law. Health department records, obtained by via a Freedom of Information Act request, showed a complaint was filed against Depot Town Tattoo for allowing a 16-year-old to tattoo an individual inside its facility. A video of the incident -- which was posted and has since been removed from YouTube -- showed Cook supervising her son work on a tattoo for her friend.


The vibrant colors of a tattoo that was originally done at an unprofessional facility then touched up at a professional facility (left) contrast the unprofessional work on the same man's arm (right).

Photo courtesy of Dawn Cook

The law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from being a body art technician. According to the report, Cook said she was unaware of the stipulation at the time. While Cook agreed to no longer allow such practices she thinks its another shortcoming of tattooing legislation because there is no provision for young people to learn the trade through apprenticeship.

The body art laws aren’t all that is preventing apprenticeship for minors, though. Michigan’s Youth Employment Standards Act prohibits persons under the age of 18 from any work involving bloodborne pathogens exposure. Thirteen specific work activities are prohibited for minors under the law including working with power drills, a tire changer and hot grease or oil among other things.

“So it’s not just the body art industry that is limited in who can be trained in their profession,” Parsons said.

The owner of Pangea Piercing in Ann Arbor, j.c. potts (who does not capitalize his name) -- who works out of Depot Town Tattoo and shot the video which was the cause for the complaint -- said he'd like to see an apprenticeship provision made to the law, too.

“Traditionally, it’s a time honored thing that’s how this trade gets taught to the next generation,” said potts. "What better way to learn a trade than with parental supervision by a professional in a licensed facility?"

Potts is torn on the laws in general.

"While I do endorse the idea of certain minimum standards, what we’d have to do to accomplish that would be a gross overreach of what I think public safety should do,” he said. “And then if we do enforce and are going into people’s home, what are we talking about then? Involving law enforcement? Guns? I can’t say I endorse that.”

Potts said he fears that enforcement of laws, increasing standards and fees will just push business underground and decrease public safety overall.

"I would add that it’s a nationwide problem, the Draconian laws for body piercing and tattooing. It’s driving business underground," said potts. "It's also discouraging people from getting involved in the profession. People are saying 'screw it' rather than trying to address the tsunami of legislation."

Parsons admitted the prevalence of illegal tattooers is nearly impossible to stomp out given the resources the health department has to work with and doesn't foresee it being law enforcement's priority anytime soon. She hopes education of the public about the dangers of getting a tattoo or piercing at an unlicensed facility will encourage people to seek out one of Washtenaw County's 17 licensed body art facilities.

“I would like to focus more of our energies on the folks operating outside of the standards and hope to do more public education because I think there is a misperception about the non-licensed artists. People think they’re being safer than they are and in some cases don't know certain operations are illegal," Parsons said.

Contact Pete Cunningham at or by phone at 734-623-2561. Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.



Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 8:05 p.m.

I will ask again and see if ANYONE is willing to answer. How much does an average tattoo cost? And I know more than a few people that have tattoos that cannot live without a government subsidy! These are relatives of mine so I know what I am talking about. They have to borrow money from their parents or grandparents for the bills but have multiple tattoos that they did NOT have until after they went on government assistance! I think having a tattoo is lame. But as long as I don't have to help pay for through government assistance I don't care.

jim mcbribe

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 7:42 p.m.

I have no idea why some people insist upon engaging in what i consider to be certain forms of self-mutilation. I think that everyone should attempt to be asthetically physically appealing to me, out of respect to me. Things like guts, pleated khakis, comb-overs, bad make-up, sports apparel, transition lenses, bluetooth earpieces - they don't brandish a person as cutting-edge, independent or bold, those pure measures of character are traits that you demonstrate by your daily actions, for example by owning property and your job/level of income, or by how you judge strangers by their appearances, but most of all by the comments you leave anonymously on annarbor dot com. In fact, it seems quite the opposite--more of a lemming mentality to demonstrate membership in a society where no one has any unique characteristics. I know, I know. To each his own, but that doesn't mean I can't express an opinion and my opinion is that I've never found Crocs or golf ball brand hats attractive or done well on anyone.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 5:49 p.m.

***The owner of Pangea Piercing in Ann Arbor, j.c. potts (who does not capitalize his name)*** Why?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 7:34 p.m.

j.c. is a gentlemen. He can do what he likes with his body or his name.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 4:36 p.m.

This same problem exists in the daycare community. There are a lot of unlicensed providers out there while others do comply with the licensing requirments.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

Good humor for sure bababooey, I appreciate the sarcasm, lets just hope the powers that be do as well.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 4:58 p.m.

Hahaha...I was thinking the same thing, Bababooey, but you beat me to it!


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 4:51 p.m.

I've also heard of these 'so-called daycares'....rumor has it they also tattoo and pierce babies!!


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 3:52 p.m.

Education is key. I have multiple tattoos, and have been tattooed by artists that have done "Hollywood" celebrities, as well as tattoos privately done by friends. If ANY artist isn't using new needles, autoclaves, etc., then you should not get tattooed by them, period. Support your local tattoo artists that do good work. Lucky Monkey is a reputable shop, as is Spiral Tattoo which is also in Ann Arbor


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 8:09 p.m.

"I have multiple tattoos, and have been tattooed by artists that have done "Hollywood" celebrities" The only difference between tattoos and graffiti is the canvas.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 3:06 p.m.

Just wait until the baby boomers are dead, the world will be a much better and understanding place.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 8:11 p.m.

Now your stereotyping baby boomers. Who will subsidize your tattoos when the bill payer are dead?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 4:59 p.m.

Huh? And this is related to illegal tattooing in what way??


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 3:36 p.m.

Seems strange, but your post lacks ... goodness and understanding.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 3:05 p.m.

I'm not taking sides in a pro/anti piercing or tattoo debate. I do however have some observations which puzzle me: people want to show me the piercing in their tongue, why? They bring it up, not me. Do they need compliments to sustain? Same with tattoos. You can talk about it as an icebreaker, and the exhibitionist "look at me" side of the person will come flying out. What gives? I don't care if they do this. But I can't help myself from turning away from someone with face piercings. I will go to all kinds of extremes to avoid looking at that stuff. Is their ego so needy that they need this constant attention? Or do they need the "shock jock" response from others? If so, it points to a weakness of mental strength as far as I think. It's not personal. I dislike Howard Stern and Rush LImbaugh too.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 8:13 p.m.

Hactin You nailed it! When I mentioned those with tattoos have issues it was removed.

Dog Guy

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 3:48 p.m.

Considering that the tongue insert is a sexual appliance, Hactin, someone was coming on to you. Perhaps rows of rings through the eyebrows indicates a stolen shower curtain. As the mud wrestler said, "Chacun a son goo."

Dog Guy

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:11 p.m.

Even in the best-run prisons, new tattoos appear. Control of illegal tattooing is very difficult when people have too much time on their hands.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:45 p.m.

Are you aware of the FDA's perspective on the topic of the safety of tattooing?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:33 p.m.

Yes, I believe there should be regulations and enforcement. The enforcement should be paid for by the fees and it should be people working for the government who have or are in the tattoo/piercing business. I have 2 tattoos and receive many compliments on them. I have a friend who hates tattoos and gives me slack when she sees mine. "why would you do that to your body?". I tell her it's freedom of expression and if she doesn't like it then kindly keep your comments to yourself because it really isnt your business what I do or don't do. I don't tell her or anyone else what they should or shouldnt do even if i don't like it. Dawn Cook and I designed a beautiful art decco butterfly for my lower back. She was extremely clean and caring. In fact, when I was in Cali and my daughter talked me into having an old tattoo on my arm covered the man who did it, knew Dawn and only had high praises for her saying she was one of the best in the country.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 8:15 p.m.

Michael I could not have said it better. Insecure individuals in many cases.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 3:07 p.m.

Why should she (or anyone) keep their comments to themselves? People who get tattoos are desperate for attention, they get them so say "hey look at me, I am special, I am hip and interesting, I have stories" is all about getting comments. If people said they loved your tattoo that would be fine with it and you would get the attention you desire, but if someone does not like them, then they should keep it to delicate the sense of self must be for people with tattoos. Just a thought.

Unusual Suspect

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:27 p.m.

I am trying to be a good boy and resist the temptation to post the nick-name for a tattoo on the lower back.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:11 p.m.

I think article is a great (and colorful) example of the small government vs. large government argument. On one the one side is a government protecting people by regulating bad actors. But of course, that licensing, training and enforcement both costs money and puts legal enterprises at a disadvantage. Lessening regulation would cost less, but more people would get Hep C. Once you've worked out where you stand on that trade-off, let's move on to oil speculators....

Robert Hughes

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 6:47 p.m.

Since we have a public education system, the risks of getting tattooed could be presented there. That cuts down on the costs a little, since education is going to convince some people not to take unwarranted risks. Higher fines from people who are operating outside of the law might also help to offset the costs of tracking them down (partially already paid for since we have a police force) and for the training. I'm not sure how well your analogy works, given that we have various social services (school, police force) already in place. I'm not saying it doesn't work, I just don't think that it's cut and dried.

Robert Hughes

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 6:36 p.m.

Interesting analogy dotdash.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:22 p.m.

Exactly. And if you can't afford a tattoo by someone who knows what they are doing, who's going to pay your health care when you get Hep C. If you make the tattoo artists pay higher fees, they will pass that on to the consumer and that will just drive more people to the underground folks. Same thing if you put a tax on tattoos.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:06 p.m.

Are the people who get tattooed in someone's basement tattoo enthusiasts or hep c enthusiasts?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:38 p.m.

just because someone is a solo tattoo artist with no license doesn't mean they don't understand what it means to be to be hygienic and safe... I've seen shops that were A LOT worse than some people's basements I've been in.

Homeland Conspiracy

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:05 p.m.

Hey Dennis It's called "freedom" get use to it. People do a lot of thing I find strange, but I'm not them so it's none of my business.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 5:35 p.m.

None of my business? As long as am no subsidizing them!


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:14 p.m.

Good point. Staying out of other people's business turns out to be super hard for some people (fake cough: anti-choice) to do...


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:03 p.m.

I agree that it was not the point of the article I also agree with DennisP's comments. While it is the persons choice to have body art, none of the tattoos shown (or I have seen otherwise) is attractive. It is my choice to think of them as stupid and trashy. And completely unattractive. More and more men in the dating pool have tats, I've seen some really stupid ones (including ex-girlfriends names). When your bodies are no longer firm and young some stretched out wrinkled tribal "art" is going to look really dumb and I don't want to be around to see it. Forty holes in your head is ugly too.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 8:20 p.m.

"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." ? Harlan Ellison

Unusual Suspect

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:29 p.m.

"So you are saying a person should always think about when they are old before they make a decision? What if they die next week?" I'm assuming then that you don't have any retirement savings.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:07 p.m.

My body will always be firm. I got a sexy body and I can do whatever I want with my darn body!


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:26 p.m.

So you are saying a person should always think about when they are old before they make a decision? What if they die next week? Will they be glad they held back in life? If you dont like it then dont get any. Try being respectful of others if you wish the same for yourself. I'm sure plenty of people have negative views about you. Doesn't feel good, does it?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

How hard ( an expensive) would it be to locate some of these unlicensed tattoo "artist"? Make their fine pay for the cost of locating them.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:49 p.m.

Actually, it would be pretty easy, jcj. Most of the high school kids know who is making house calls on the side.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:18 p.m.

In theory, I think that's fine. But as they say, you can't squeeze blood from a rock. There's a reason the unregulated folks don't set up a shop - they probably don't have a lot of money to start with...


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:44 p.m.

Enforcement costs money. Are you willing to raise your taxes (or fees for the businesses) to make it happen? Or do you think getting rid of the regulation and allowing tattoo artists to use unsterile equipment is a better idea?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:43 p.m.

I'm too good-looking to mark my body up with tattoos. I have nothing to hide. I want everybody to see it in all it's natural beauty.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:28 p.m.

i'm a natural beauty but still have a couple tattoos... they are hidden unless i'm wearing shorts but i hope no one would judge me based on them. If someone would do so I consider them ignorant.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:42 p.m.

Bottom line: people can do what they want with their own bodies. If they are limited by employers not appreciating their tats, that's still their choice. Maybe Mr. P's parents stopped him from listening to rock n roll... that also ruined people's lives....


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:32 p.m.

Someone help me understand why someone would get a tattoo on their neck. To me, It screams limited income for the rest of my life.

Unusual Suspect

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:49 p.m.

Gorc is right, it definitely excludes one from a significant number of career paths. Intrepidisme, nobody is arguing against the freedom to do so, so get off your soapbox. The comments have to do with one's decision to do so.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:23 p.m.

Because it is their freedom to do so. Just like its your freedom to not do so.

Tex Treeder

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:31 p.m.

I've dealt with j.c. potts and his staff at Pangea on a few times and I've found them to be completely professional, more than meeting state requirements for hygiene, certification and good business practices. For example, I watched one of their staff trying to convince a would-be customer NOT to get a piercing because his ear hadn't recovered sufficiently. Like it or not, people are going to get piercings and tattoos. I think an apprentice type program is a good idea.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 4:22 p.m.

It is curious that this evaluation of conformance to state requirements is posted by a layman.

Tex Treeder

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:32 p.m.

Damn typos. "A few times", not "on a few times." I wish the original poster could edit these things after posting.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:31 p.m.

I have never seen a tattoo I like. But I agree that there should be more equal enforcement of the law. How much would an average tattoo cost? How many people on food stamps have tattoo's? TOO many!


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 7:23 p.m.

Ah yes, receiving public assistance automatically means one can never spend a dime on anything that some "concerned citizen" considers frivolous (disregarding for the moment that this article said nothing about the economic circumstances of those getting tattooed).

Middle America

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:30 p.m.

thanks a lot OBUMMER!!!! consititution!! AMERICA!


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:22 p.m.

jcj you are stereotyping people with tattoos just because you don't like them. ignorant on your part.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:49 p.m.

Is it possible that the tattoo came prior to the food stamps? How many people on food stamps have a couch? Been on a vacation? Have a car? Voted? Been in a bar? A restaurant even, oh my gosh? The drama.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 11:04 a.m.

I have no idea why young people insist upon engaging in this form of self-mutilation. It's one thing when you have a small one discreetly located. It's quite another to have them plastered all over their arms and necks. Even the best of these tattoos look like bad comic book art. They don't brandish a person as cutting-edge, independent or bold, those are traits that you demonstrate by your daily actions, not your cosmetics. In fact, it seems quite the opposite--more of a lemming mentality to demonstrate membership in some Hollywood-fabricated tribal society. The only ones who really make money off of this are the plastic surgeons who are paid to remove as much as they can later when the person comes to regret their choice. I know, I know. To each his own, but that doesn't mean I can't express an opinion and my opinion is that I've never found these attractive or done well on anyone.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 5:48 p.m.

Tattoos and piercings are a way of self expression. Some people do it with poetry, some people do it with drawing or theatre. Tattoos and piercings are not exceptions.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

since when is art self mutilation?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

Do you realize how badly you are contradicting yourself here? You state that a person's daily actions are what make them independent, cutting-edge or bold and not their cosmetics. But then you go on to say that their choice of body art somehow magically turns them into lemmings. So, which one is it? Can a person with tattoos not behave in a way that exhibits all of the positive traits you mentioned? My tattoos were not intended to make me stand out from the crowd, appear cutting-edge, nor were they an attempt to fit in. I didn't get my first tattoo until I was 33 years old, and more and more older people are being tattooed every day. It's not just about the crazy youngsters trying to fit in like you seem to think.

Unusual Suspect

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 1:45 p.m.

Rabid, I believe he mentions young people because most older people are wise enough to know better.


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:26 p.m.

Well put, Mr. P. Alas, only the future selves of these self-mutilators will agree.

Rabid Wolverine

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:23 p.m.

I don't see why you believe that it is only young people getting large tattoos, as you put it. My father, father-in-law and mother-in-law have all gotten large tattoos in the past year. I have a few as does my wife. I am not sure why you are so opposed to the idea that people can do as they like with their own bodies as it hurts noone and keeps people gainfully employed. Perhaps we should all wear uniforms wherever we go so as to not be a distraction to the public?


Mon, Apr 23, 2012 : 12:04 p.m.

That's not the point of the article. If the state passes a law tom protect the citizens they need to enforce it. Not only are legitimate businesses being hurt but the potential injury to individuals from infection is a major concern.