Ink Wars: A New Law Pits Florida Tattoo Artists Against One Another

Dony is wrapped in a pirate-themed kids' comforter, writhing in pain. "Ahhhh, Louie," she groans, thrashing her feet. Louie is clutching a tattoo machine and delivering precise jolts of misery into the 37-year-old's left shoulder. The fedora and heels in which Dony started the day are tossed to the side, but her product-heavy hair and makeup remain intact. "Ahh, Louie, wait," she demands in a sharp cry that fills the first floor of the Hialeah condo.

Louie heeds this order and places the machine on a blue medical napkin that's taped to a folding snack table. For several hours, he has been tattooing a large, slinking tiger and Chinese symbol on Dony. Standing up to stretch, he pulls off a pair of black plastic gloves and swigs from a bottle of Bud Light Platinum. "She's gonna take a crap when she sees how awesome this is," a smiling Louie says to his wife and 2-year-old daughter; the two are in the kitchen mixing corn muffin batter.

Onyx, the family's black schnauzer, waggles between rooms while searching for crumbs and attention. Lying on an L-shaped leather couch in the living room is Dony's boyfriend, George, a shirtless, bearded beast of a man. He's tucked under a SpongeBob SquarePants blanket, sleeping off the pain that accompanies getting an enormous, vivid phoenix carved across his rib cage. The canary-yellow walls, Tiffany-style lamp, and mail-strewn dining-room table lend a surprising sense of normalcy that's impossible to replicate in a storefront tattoo parlor.

In the past, Louie had few concerns about tattooing in his home. It had always been technically illegal — he didn't have the proper waste-disposal permits or work under the general supervision of a doctor, as required by law for years — but it was easy to fly under the radar. That changed on January 1, when a new law dubbed "The Practice of Tattooing" took effect. Now, for the first time, tattoo artists in Florida must be registered with the Department of Health, pass an infection safety exam, and work in a shop that's also registered with the state. Perhaps most notable, the new law creates a clear incentive — thousands of dollars in fines and criminal charges — for authorities to come down on unlicensed artists.

Although Louie does not have the proper permits, he takes health precautions just as any artist in a retail shop — except there's a dog and no autoclave (a machine that uses heat and pressure to sterilize equipment). "Treat everyone like they have AIDS," he says, shaking a red plastic biomedical waste box filled with used needles. Barrier film is slapped on nearby machines to prevent cross contamination, all needles are new and sterilized, and his plastic bottle of green soap is wrapped in a clear bag.

Louie scrolls through his portfolio on a smartphone during a break. He's the first to admit that it's not topnotch, but there's discernible improvement over the three years he has been tattooing seriously. He pauses on an utterly botched and disproportionate tattoo of the Incredible Hulk that was done by someone else; it looks like a drawing you'd see scrawled in a fourth-grader's notebook. A customer came to Louie with this mess, hoping he could salvage it. "That guy got scratched up nice," Louie says. Then he shows a picture of his fix-up in which the Hulk looks like the green superhero we all recognize.

Louie has never worked in a tattoo shop or toiled through an apprenticeship. He's a certified emergency medical technician who hasn't found a job in the health-care field, so he works at a hardware store during the day. In a busy week, he tattoos three people, enough to earn a few hundred bucks. At a recent tattoo convention in Fort Myers, he made a few grand and had a steady flow of customers the entire weekend. Price varies depending on the piece and whether you're a close bud, a returning customer, or a stranger responding to a Craigslist ad. Eighty percent of his customers come through word of mouth; the rest trickle in through the internet.

"A good project is hard to find," he says. "Sometimes I'll do pieces pro bono or for next to nothing if it's something I'm excited about, that I want to do. I do this more for the art, and it's also an extra income."

To some, Louie, 26, is a bona fide artist. To others, he's a "scratcher" — an unlicensed, untrained amateur who jeopardizes public health and pilfers clients from legitimate, taxpaying parlors.

"If you can draw and you can paint, you can tattoo," Louie says. "It all comes down to skills and your artistic ability. I understand why a lot of shop owners kind of hate the mobile artists and guys like me. They're upset that we're taking some of the clientele... I'm worried about the new law a bit; I just don't want to get screwed for anything."

The legislation is the latest layer of bureaucratic banality heaped on a postfringe art form that generates millions in revenue. It took two years for the law to be crafted, trashed, redrafted, and finally passed. Now, state lawmakers are presumably happy — they can boast about how they made it slightly more difficult for teenagers to get a tattoo, and the new licensing fees are expected to bring in a profit for the state by year two. But among tattoo artists, there's a lasting rift with heaps of infighting. And one group, the Florida Professional Tattoo Artist Guild, has a plan to make sure the long arm of the law will be able to nab underground artists like Louie.

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This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives indepth information. thanks for this nice articleThis was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.


What kind of guy cant find a job with a degree in the medical profession? That is the ONLY area hiring.

It someone can't get a job in the medical profession, then I sure as hell don't want him anywhere near me with a needle.


I am just fine with cheap dummies getting crappy tattoos from their buddies.  No real harm done to anybody and it ought to be perfectly legal.  The current law criminalizes what ought to be legal to the sole benefit of the current tattoo businesses.

That makes it obnoxious.

Pete Pepper
Pete Pepper

With tattoos, the old maxim is you get what you pay for.  While your buddy may throw some ink on you for twenty bucks, most likely its gonna look like you payed twenty bucks on it an you will end up forking over more to make it look right.I have my loyalties to Formula Ink and I have seen some tattoos they have had to fix from some fly by night guy in a backroom.  They are not expensive and go really good work.  You might as well just go to a shop with an artist you like and have it done right the first time instead of suffering through some really bad ink.  


Pimping out the entrepreneurs.  A lot easier than earning money by working for it and the more competitors you can run out of business the better.

This whole scheme is merely a way to limit competition and run up the cost instigated by existing businesses and sold to do-gooders who have never ever seen a regulation they didn't love.

The losers are the public who has to pay more and small time tatooers who can't earn an income.

Damn liberals, lawyers, legislators and industry weasels.  You ought to be able to buy a permit and hunt them.


     This bill was made up by the tattoo guild for the  purpose of  better health regulation not  to have more clientele for themselves.    To me that's  childish whining coming from most likely a "scratcher" whose portfolio wouldn't get him in the door of any decent tattoo shop. Cut the  hippie crap out about the government too. But i digress, the fact is, its illegal to tattoo out of the house anywhere in America, and  its fuckin easy here in  FL to walk into  a tattoo shop, even with a  sub par portfolio  and  be hired on the spot. Of coarse you only get about 25 to 30 % cut of the tattoo and good luck with getting return customers. Facts are,  you are lazy and couldn't handle a real apprenticeship because you were brought up with no morals or respect, and YOU are the "industry weasel" as you so elegantly put it.          The fact is that Florida is the least regulated of all 50 states.  I am from MA, and  there you need a two years apprenticeship, blood borne pathogen, first aid and CPR training. A college level anatomy class just to get your license. SO quit whining!!!     Secondly,  tattoos have always been expensive!!  Where the fuck have you been?? I have seen these 100 dollar half sleeves and  50 dollar portraits. To each his own if they  like it and think it resembles whom ever but i bite my tongue if ever asked.   on a side note:      An apprenticeship isn't just to teach you to take a needle and make a line on skin. A real apprenticeship not only teaches the art form  but the way to take care for the shop and  everything in it. And later when you open up your own shop its second nature to run it. Secondly  teaches you how to properly set up and  break down a station  with out cross contaminating everything as you go. Cause FYI:  Aids isn't the killer you really need to be afraid of, its hep C. Hep can stay alive but dormant for 2 weeks, HIV dies instantly upon hitting the air.  On the art side,  teaches an artist to take what was drawn or brought in by a client and turn it into a tattoo-able design that will last the ages.  Somethings that look good at the moment it is done can fall apart with years a wear on the skin.

Larry from Hollywood
Larry from Hollywood

 You're an idiot.  95% of regulations exist because the people being regulated failed to act responsibly in the first place, usually leaving someone sick, injured or ripped off.  There are scores of examples, the most recent being the "toxic tush" fake doctor who was injecting "Fix-a-Flat" into people's asses.  I'm sure she envisioned herself to be a "freelance artist" as well.

Every trade that potentially impacts public health is licensed and regulated, whether the licensee is a brain surgeon, paramedic, or hair stylist.  Similarly, dozens of skilled trades require certification and apprenticeship as well (electrician, carpenter, etc.).  Are you seriously suggesting that someone who uses invasive techniques via thousands of needle pricks should be held to a lesser professional standard than any of these other examples?

If you want to continue playing the role of the poor victim whose "artistic expression" and earning ability are being stifled by "Da Man", then restrict your "art" to drawing on people with a handful of Sharpie markers.  But if you want to be treated as a legitimately talented artist, then grow up and become professional about it the way thousands of others have done.

Besides, if it was YOUR arm rotting off with MRSA, I bet you'd be crying "There should've been a law!" and scrambling for one of those do-gooder liberal lawyers to file a $10 million liability suit on your behalf.

Pete Pepper
Pete Pepper

 You really do not know what you are talking about.