Longform

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."

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Chris Sweeney