10 years of Legal Tattooing in South Carolina
06:23 PM
Southern tattoo.jpgKnuckle tattoos by Chris Compton of Broken Lantern Tattoo, Charleston, SC.

It hasn't been that long since state-wide tattoo bans in the US were lifted. Oklahoma was the last state to legalize tattooing in 2006. And I was just reminded that South Carolina is reaching its 10th year of legal tattooing since 2004. It's amazing to think just how much has changed in such a short period of time.

According to SC Now's Morning News, more than 100 licensed tattoo studios are operating around the state, and despite the fear that legalizing "would invite drug use, pornography and assorted other evils," that hasn't happened. In fact, there has hardly been any real action against tattoo studios in South Carolina. As the article explains:

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control [DHEC], which regulates tattoo parlors, has taken action against only 12 shops since 2006, according to records obtained by The Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Those actions involved permitting issues, such as failing to renew a license on time or attempting to open a shop within 1,000 feet of a church, a no-no under the law. None involved parlors in the greater Charleston area.

"Generally speaking, these facilities maintain satisfactory compliance and adherence to state regulations," DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said.

DHEC did, however, pinpoint 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.

South Carolina has some of the strictest tattoo laws on the books, including a prohibition on neck, face, and head tattoos, and the above-mentioned rule against opening a shop 1,000 feet from a church, school or playground. The DHEC has two health inspectors who make their rounds around the state every three years to ensure that each studio is complying with the regulations. And so, in light of such oversight, it's interesting that so few violations of the regs have been found.

It was the concern over health risks, particularly hepatitis, that led to South Carolina's tattoo ban (among other states). The problem was that a blanket ban violated the rights to free expression of artists and collectors.  [I've written about tattoos and First Amendment issues here.]

It was this right to free expression that formed the basis of White v. South Carolina, a case challenging South Carolina's tattoo ban, which was appealed to the US Supreme Court; however, the highest court in the country chose not to hear it.

In White v. South Carolina, Ronald P. White was arrested and convicted in 1999 for violating the tattoo ban in South Carolina after video of him tattooing was broadcast to a local TV audience. White admitted to violating the law, but argued that the law violated his First Amendment rights. This case was argued up to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which found that "the state's legitimate concern about any health risks associated with tattooing outweighed whatever expressive concerns White and other tattoo artists may have." More on that case here and see the S.C. appellate case here.

Despite the court rulings, in June 2004, tattoo artists could practice their craft. And so, with over ten years of proving tattoo opponents wrong, we can celebrate tattoo expression in South Carolina and across the country.

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