Louie tattoos Dony at his condo in Hialeah this February.
Louie tattoos Dony at his condo in Hialeah this February.
Chris Sweeney

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.

"They went from west to east across the northern part of the state," says Bill Hannong, recalling how investigators from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) swept through tattoo shops in the Panhandle in an unprecedented crackdown in 1991.

Back then, the law stipulated that all parlors be under the "direct supervision" of a physician, with little guidance on what that term actually meant. Hannong, who runs Cadillac Tattoo Studio in Fort Myers, explains, "The state had allowed each county to interpret ["direct supervision"] how they wanted. But DBPR decided that was not what they wanted, so they started closing studios for not having a doctor on premises. When that started happening, a few of us got together and discussed what we needed to do to survive the onslaught." Hannong helped found and also became president of the Florida Professional Tattoo Artist Guild.

The guild succeeded in getting the language of the law changed from "direct supervision" to "general supervision," though legislators warned that a specific body of laws for the industry would be needed in the future. Under general supervision, shops got by without much hassle: a yearly visit from a physician and the occasional county health inspection to make sure biomedical waste was being disposed of in a proper manner.

"Getting the word changed from direct to general allowed the industry to take off and run," says Hannong, who estimates there were only 40 or so tattoo shops in all of Florida when the guild was formed. The industry did run, wildly. The change to the law coincided with a surge in the popularity of tattoos and piercings. In the early 1990s, graphic designers and art-school kids stepped into the world of body modification, but so did those who cared less about the craft and more about making a quick buck. There seemed to be a shop opening in every neighborhood. Artists posted up in flea markets and along boardwalks, pulling in locals and tourists.

The Department of Health says that as of February 2012, there were 1,196 tattoo and piercing shops in Florida, based on the number of biomedical waste permits it has issued. The spectrum ranges from high-end shops like Love Hate Tattoo Studio — made famous by the show Miami Ink — where recently an employee was overheard quoting a German tourist $550 for a tattoo of a flower that would take about an hour to complete. Then there are shops like Ink Obsessions Mia in downtown Miami, which offers deals such as $100 half sleeves. You can find shops that sell bongs, trashy T-shirts, and tattoos all in one, or jump on Craigslist and hire a mobile artist who'll set up shop in your kitchen.

"The segments of the pie have gotten smaller," Hannong says. "But because the customer base has increased, it's not a total wash... The economy, now that's forced us to look at our expenses, our overheads, where we can cut costs and not decrease the value of what we're selling. It made us rethink a lot of our stuff and made us become better businesspeople. "

Despite the boom, the tattoo industry remained largely regulation-free until 2009. That's when, according to urban legend, Hollywood state Sen. Eleanor Sobel spotted a hideous tramp stamp on the back of a teenager. Sobel doesn't deny or confirm the story but says in an email that she was "very concerned about minors getting tattoos." To address the lack of oversight and finally create standalone laws for the industry, she turned to Palm Beach Rep. Mary Brandenburg and Hannong's tattoo guild and, with their input, drafted a bill.

Fort Lauderdale tattoo artist Stevie Moon went berserk when he laid eyes on the proposal.

"After so many years of being unified together, [the guild] probably thought they were the last fucking word of tattooing in Florida," Moon rants. "The guild was literally diving headfirst into a black mamba pit... They were about to fuck everyone in the state who wanted to make a living tattooing."

Moon is slouched behind a wooden table at his shop, Stevie Moon Tattoo, in Wilton Manors. His thoroughly inked arms burst from a short-sleeved white polo, and his balding head reflects the yellow light from the industrial-style ceiling lamps. It's too early in the morning for the hum of tattoo machines and small talk to drown out his grating hybrid of Baltimore and New England accents.

Moon spent his formative years in Boston when the city enforced a strict ban on the entire trade. He says the concept of labeling some tattoo artists as mere "scratchers" developed in the early '90s. It was just a way for established artists to stop competitors from breaking into the industry and has been used for fear-mongering ever since, Moon says.

"Back in the '90s, it became very popular for some famous artist to say, 'I support this tattoo supply company, and I support them because they will not sell to scratchers.' The premise of it was: 'Don't support people who aren't doing it right,' and they were hiding under this guise that they were so fucking concerned about public health," Moon says. "It was bullshit. The real reason was: 'Don't support anyone that fucking didn't get an apprenticeship because tattooing is already full and we don't want anyone else coming in.' Everybody was afraid for their fucking pocketbook."

Tired of working in perpetual violation of the law, Moon moved to Florida in 2000 and quickly gained popularity for tattooing the South Beach fashion crowd. "Globetrotters," he says. "I'm a gay guy; sometimes membership has its privileges."

It's impossible to keep up with Moon in conversation. He warns that "ADD will kick in" and that he's "gonna fuckin' fly everywhere" during the interview. In 60 seconds, he segues from an anecdote about a chimp ripping off a guy's testicles to commentary on urban sprawl to a Christopher Walken impression. Over the course of the morning, he launches into profanity-laced tirades against the guild and discusses the three aspects of the proposed law that disgusted him most:

"It said essentially that anyone with a contagious disease cannot get tattooed and anyone with a contagious disease could not tattoo," Moon exclaims. "If it passed, I was [going to take] out a full-page ad in the Sun-Sentinel saying 'Stevie Moon is looking for HIV-positive clients to tattoo' just to say 'Fuck you — come get me.' " Moon says he sent out information about the possible effects and constitutional murkiness of the proposed law to 1,500 gay-friendly blogs, newsletters, and tattoo websites across the world to stoke an uproar.

Moon's second concern was that anyone coming into the state would need to get several letters from already-established tattoo artists granting them permission to tattoo in their city. "If you wanted to come into Fort Lauderdale and open up shop, you had to get a letter from me giving you permission to fucking tattoo in my town. Dude, talk about protectionism. This was so gross to me."

The third was mandatory apprenticeships. "Did these guys read books on Lucky Luciano and how to do this stuff? This was the birth of the tattoo mafia in Florida," Moon says. "[The guild] wasn't looking at the big picture of tattooing after they're dead and buried. They were being very American, standing with their nose touching the mirror, and that's as far as they could fucking see... And they tried to sell it by saying, 'This law will get rid of the scratchers, more money for your shops.' I don't have to tell you what it reeked of."

Moon reached out to lobbyists and lawyers and called his anti-guild brethren up to Tallahassee. There, they came face-to-face with Hannong and a few guild members for what could have been an epic battle royal of burly tattoo bros for control of the industry. But rather, Moon says, Hannong's and the guild's jaws dropped when the lobbyists explained the long-term ramifications of the bill.

The two factions made nice and forged an alliance to get the bill killed in committee. Then they collaborated to draft a new version of the bill, which passed in 2010 and, according to Moon, is "common sense." Now tattoo artists must obtain a yearly license that costs about $60 and score 70 percent on an exam about blood-borne pathogens. Each shop must also register yearly, which costs about $200, and pass an inspection from county health regulators.

The new law says that tattoo parlors must have "walls, a floor, and a ceiling," prohibits animals in shops, and explains, "There shall not be a direct opening between a tattoo establishment and any building or portion of a building used as living or sleeping quarters." It lays out rules for maintaining an autoclave and details the various forms of permission needed to tattoo minors. Those found in violation can be fined $1,500 per infraction and get hit with second-degree misdemeanor charges — three of which equal a felony. The burden of enforcement falls on county health departments, but state Sen. Sobel says that enforcing the program will be "cost neutral" and that the state will start profiting from the fees by the second year of enforcement. Arguably, one of the biggest selling points is that the law safeguards public health.

Ed Homan, an orthopedic surgeon and former Republican state representative from Tampa, brought up his experience of treating a staph infection when he testified in favor of the bill.

"It was the angriest infection I've ever seen," Homan tells New Times, describing one freshly tattooed, "swollen, red, angry arm" that he had to treat. "I've been in the Navy, seen battle wounds, and this was just over-the-top. I thought, 'If we can't cure this, we're going to have to take the guy's arm off.' " Homan doesn't recall whether a professional artist or a scratcher did that tattoo, only the intravenous drip of powerful antibiotics needed to control the infection.

"Staph organisms are out in the environment everywhere," he explains. "They're under your fingernails, in your mouth, on tabletops, on utensils, around your rear end. Your skin is a barrier, but when you put them under your skin, they divide, multiply, and cause huge problems. People die from those things."

Staph infections can be caused by dirty equipment — the tattooist's fault — or by poor hygiene and lack of proper aftercare — the recipient's fault. Gathering reliable epidemiological data on infections and diseases caused by tattoos is difficult for a number of reasons, but in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated 44 cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a nasty, difficult-to-treat bacterium commonly referred to as MRSA — that were linked to 13 unlicensed tattoo artists in Vermont, Ohio, and Kentucky. "Nonsterile equipment and suboptimal infection-control practices" were the likely culprits, according to the report.

Hepatitis is another risk associated with tattoos, and it's harder to sterilize against than staph organisms. This January, the CDC released a review of studies on tattoos and the hepatitis C virus that concluded there is "no definitive evidence for an increased risk of HCV infection when tattoos and piercings were received in professional parlors." The risk was, however, "significant" when tattoos were performed in home or prison environments. In fact, the CDC report cites two studies that showed a two- to three-times higher risk for HCV infection when the tattoo was received in a nonprofessional setting.

"Everyone that has a legitimate shop in Florida has seen an increase in people with infected tattoos or really bad tattoos done by people working out of their home," says Tom Meyer, who owns Ink Addiction, a shop with locations in Jupiter and Stuart. Meyer is the current president of the tattoo guild and has been working in the state since 1990. Nowadays, he says, the guild fluctuates in size from a few dozen dues-paying members to a few hundred; membership grows whenever there's a "so-called emergency."

One aspect of the new legislation that appeals to the guild, Meyer says, is that there's now monetary incentive for police and health officials to go after unlicensed tattooists and shops that are in violation. "If someone is tattooing illegally in an unlicensed area and it's a minor, that's three strikes," he says.

In other words, if an unlicensed artist were caught tattooing a minor (now illegal) in his home (also illegal), he or she could be hit with upward of $5,000 in fines and a felony charge. The chances of getting caught might seem remote, except for one new development: The guild plans to work with health officials to root out underground artists and crack down on subpar shops.

"The big thing with the new law is it's all complaint-driven," Meyer explains. "So now, every time people come in with bad tattoos or tattoo infections, we as professional, legitimate shops will get as much information as we can on who did it and give that information to the health department or local police."

Hannong, who says Stevie Moon's mentality is a stranglehold when it comes to advancing the industry, is dead set on this idea.

"We're in the process of coordinating efforts between the Department of Health as well as law enforcement in each of our areas," he says, "so we can document the illegal activity and then we can issue that to the state attorney in each county and notify the department."

His voice tightens when he's asked if this ambition is driven by concern for public health or concern for shops' profits. He explains that everyone needs to respect the pedigree of the profession for it to remain a viable livelihood.

"There's an ongoing state of contention between underground activity and the legitimate industry," he says. "How protective would you be of your industry — being a person of property, having a family, and kids in school — and there being illegal activity that could jeopardize your livelihood?... The statutory language gives the state incentive to go after the underground activity. We as professionals will pursue this diligently to make sure it's followed through."

Tattooists like Moon say the tattoo industry is beautifully self-regulated; word gets around if you're a bad artist — not if you're an unlicensed one. Chico, who owns four shops in Miami, thinks that scratchers should be hit with felony charges, but he laughs at the idea of working with the DOH or local police, saying he's no snitch. Guy, an artist at Love Hate Tattoo, says the plan doesn't make sense, that tattooing is an industry driven by being better than other artists, not ratting them out. Marcelo Rodriguez, an artist at the Kendall location of Tattoos by Lou, calls the guild "a bunch of fucking pussies."

Moon is, unsurprisingly, a bit more expressive when told of the guild's plan. His 2009 alliance with the group has since crumbled, and he's "embarrassed" to be tattooing in the same state as its members.

"You're supposed to help your brethren, not fucking burn them down," he says. "This is an organization I thought was supposed to support the community, and instead they want to try to police it. They're a bunch of scared little fucking boys still trying to start a tattoo mafia and make it legit by hiding behind this law and the whole scratcher thing."

Underground artists seem unfazed by the hubbub. Louie has no plans to stop his home-run tattoo business because of the new laws, though he has kicked around the idea of opening a shop. Omar, who runs an immaculate yet illegal shop in Hialeah Gardens, says there are underground artists in every medium — music, painting, and tattoos — and it's the consumer's choice to pick an established or underground shop. Then there's Biggie, a four-foot-11 22-year-old who tried going legit but found the DIY approach easier, cleaner, and more profitable.

"Honestly, I don't think the law is gonna do anything," she says over a cup of coffee.

While growing up in Miami Gardens, Biggie made lists of the tattoos she wanted. Her mom died when she was 4, and her twin sister died when they were teenagers. Of her five brothers, one is serving in Afghanistan, one is serving a life sentence, and she doesn't speak to another. All of this information drips out in a take-it-as-it-comes tone without a hint of self-pity. Biggie says she had two options in life upon graduating from William H. Turner Technical Arts High School in Miami: "get a security license or get a tattoo starter kit."

When the kit arrived, Biggie's on-again, off-again girlfriend volunteered her hip as a canvas. They scurried upstairs after the girlfriend's mom left for church one Sunday. Biggie wasn't entirely sure how to hold the machine; still, she managed to turn out a heart with a treble clef. Satisfied, she went to work on her own lower leg, etching a four-inch-tall Marvin the Martian into her dark-brown skin.

"I knew nothing about inks, and the kit came with cheap, water-based ink," she recalls. "I hated the color; it wasn't popping... I sat on my sister's porch and just scratched it and peeled off the skin. It burned; it got pink."

It healed, she did a touchup, and Marvin now looks OK. In the years that followed, Biggie did the Craigslist and word-of-mouth thing. She couldn't afford to do an apprenticeship — some shops offer them as unpaid internships, and other shops even make the apprentices pay. A break of sorts came last November, when she landed a chair at Ink Obsessions Mia. It seemed like an ideal first foray into legitimate tattooing.

The small shop pulls decent foot traffic with deals like 25 percent off for students and $250 full sleeves. Its ambiance is coarse, and the lack of a bathroom is perplexing. If someone needs to go, he has to leave the shop, walk next door to the Miami Sun Hotel, go down a long hallway, and explain to the lady at the front desk that he's from the tattoo shop. The owner of the hotel owns the property of the tattoo shop, so it's not entirely weird. It's unclear if this arrangement will meet the criteria under the new rules.

Biggie says she didn't mind putting in long hours — 11 or 12 a day on occasion — even though she cleared only a few hundred bucks a week (the shop took half of her revenue, which isn't unusual). Having to push two chairs together so people could lie down for certain tattoos wasn't a big deal either. It was the bathroom, or lack of one, that ended her run at the shop.

Biggie shifts her round eyes toward the ground to explain why she left. After not being allowed a bathroom break and having an embarrassing incident, she quit.

She has since been relying on word of mouth, Tumblr, and Craigslist to pull in a handful of clients each month. Told of the guild's plans to go after artists like her as well as shops like the one she worked at, Biggie shakes her head and says it doesn't make any sense.

"The only way I'd be able to pay tattooing fines," she says, "is by doing more tattoos."

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