Inked in s.c. state welcomed 105 tattoo parlors in decade after ban ended archives postandcourier.com electricity questions grade 9

The business has become fiercely competitive along the way, with artists attempting ever more elaborate and creative designs to build clientele and grow their business. Some, like Gafgen, have art degrees and backgrounds in graphic design. That has raised the bar, as well as clients’ expectations.

Many artists post their work on social media sites to gain attention. Some also trash-talk their competition. And in one Charleston neighborhood, a petition drive against an incoming tattoo parlor was rumored to be the work of a competitor who wasn’t keen on someone cutting into his business – a claim the competitor denies.

A couple unfortunate incidents have occurred, including the 2012 death of a Columbia tattoo shop parlor owner who shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette in his Five Points shop. But most shops have stayed under-the-radar, followed the rules and attracted little negative attention, authorities said.

DHEC did, however, pinpont a bacteria outbreak at one Lowcountry tattoo parlor in 2000 after eight cases of infection were traced to the shop, Beasley said. He said he didn’t know and couldn’t access the name of the shop late last week. But he said that is the only such outbreak recorded in DHEC’s files.

Down the hall from Reed, Robbie Joyner, a 34-year-old small-businessman from Goose Creek, lay on a padded table as artist Steve Beasley worked on an elaborate sleeve running the length of Joyner’s arm, the whine of the needle cutting through the pulsing beat of a Montell Jordan song on the stereo. Joyner had put in about 21 hours on the table getting the sleeve inked, and he figured he had at least nine more to go.

South Carolina outlawed tattooing in the 1960s, with lawmakers fearing an epidemic of hepatitis similar to an outbreak that occurred in New York, supposedly traced to a tattoo artist working on Coney Island. Other states took similar measures. But by 2004, only South Carolina and Oklahoma still outlawed tattooing.

Underground artists known as "scratchers" plied their trade during this time, working out of living rooms and garages and rarely possessing formal training in the sanitary requirements of the job. Health concerns over unlicensed artists eventually convinced tattoo opponents in the Legislature to reverse the ban and regulate the parlors. In addition to sanitary measures, the state imposed restrictions against inking drunk people or tattooing the face, head or neck of another person.

Charleston, for instance, relegated the shops to light industrial areas where they are neighbors with such businesses as auto body shops. Myrtle Beach kept them to light industrial and medical zones, resulting in most tattoo shops being clumped along Seaboard Street with strip clubs, piercing salons and lingerie stores.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, was a city councilman when the ban was lifted, and he was among those concerned about tattoo shops attracting riff-raff. Back in 2004, he suggested the parlors "have been connected with drugs, porn and pedophiles."

Gilliard still contends that the shops belong on the outskirts of town, away from quiet neighborhoods, due to what he sees as their propensity to attract "loud motorcycles and crowds of young teenagers coming in." But he has softened his view of the industry somewhat now that it is under a regulatory eye.

Depending on who you talk to in the industry, that is plenty. Many parlors tout their cleanliness and the hospital-grade measures they take to sanitize equipment and properly dispose of materials that contain blood or potential pathogens. As they say, no one wants to make a customer sick or have the stigma of infection hanging over their shop.

Stories still circulate among artists about substandard shops where ashtrays and half-eaten food linger around workstations. And one artist said he bolted from a parlor after he found that it was fudging paperwork and dumping biohazards in the regular trash to save on disposal fees.

He said the agency’s goal is to help prevent such incidents, and that DHEC inspectors "work with and educate parlor staff members to ensure they have the knowledge and training necessary to perform their jobs safely for themselves and their customers."

All the enforcement-action records DHEC provided to The Post and Courier concerned licensing paperwork issues, failure to pay fees on time or improperly attempting to open a tattoo parlor too close to a church. Three Columbia shops and one in Florence were cited in recent months for licensing issues.

One of those shops, Black Kandy Tattoo in Columbia, was dinged for failing to renew its license and pay associated fees and penalties since February, according to a certified letter sent to parlor owner Anthony Patrick last month. He was told his license is no longer valid.

If licensed artists have a common foe, it is the "scratchers" who continue to operate on an underground circuit, bypassing the rules and inking homemade tattoos on the cheap. In 2012, an Horry County man was indicted and accused of giving a 16-year-old girl a tattoo for $40. Another unlicensed artist was arrested two years earlier in Clover for allegedly inking underage teens without their parents’ consent for $30 a pop.

Still, artists like Gafgen, of Roses & Ruin, said they see the results of amateur or inferior tattooers on a regular basis, as she and her colleagues often are called upon to fix the mess someone else made. "You can hurt people if you don’t know what you’re doing," she said.

He got his start in New Orleans and, like a lot of artists, moved around the country a bit seeking better opportunities and "chasing the money." Dennis still sees room for growth in Charleston but hopes it doesn’t get oversaturated with shops, such as the Big Easy and San Diego, where he also worked. Too many shops can cut into individual earnings, driving good artists out of town, he said.

Dennis, who at 43 is quite the illustrated man himself, is pleased to see acceptance of the industry growing in the Palmetto State, that folks now understand tattoo artists and their clientele aren’t the scourge some people made them out to be.