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The Tattoo Industry Has a Predator Problem — And a Controversial Solution

In an industry that prides itself on the acceptance of outcasts, talk of government intervention is sparking fierce debate

In 2018, the tattoo industry was shaken by sweeping accusations of predatory sexual misconduct, prompting vigilante Instagram accounts like Watch Dog Tattoos to log harassment, assault and rape perpetrated by tattooers. Two years later, allegations against tattoo artists continue to stack up — as do social media accounts that act as registries of accused, potentially dangerous tattooers — rousing groups like TattooMeToo Recovery Artists, which aim to help victims escape reminders of abuse by reworking or finishing the tattoos they have by known abusers.

Fed up, a group of tattoo artists in England and Wales — some of the same ones behind TattooMeToo Recovery Artists — have requested that the federal government require tattooers provide DBS checks, or criminal background checks, before granting them a license. Currently, tattoo licenses are handed out by local councils.

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🌟HELLO TO OUR AMAZING SUPPORTERS🌟 We are sorry things have been a little quiet lately, being back at work has slowed us down a little bit! However, we have been working away behind the scenes and we have a few things in the works!! In the mean time, one of our main aims is to ensure that customers and co-workers are kept safe from assault, abuse and inappropriate treatment. One of the ways we aim to do this is to get tattoo artists to complete basic DBS checks to ensure that there is nothing on their criminal record that relates to sexual assault, domestic abuse, violent crimes, racist/homophobic crimes or the abuse of a minor. Please show your support by signing the petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/334360

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Chris Harrison, a tattoo artist in South Wales, tells me, “The recent increase in people wanting to have tattoo artists do a DBS check stems from a few artists in England that have recently been accused and investigated for sexual assault and rape. Due to this, male and female tattoo artists are asking that anyone working in a studio has a DBS check, mostly so they know if the person they may be employing is going to be a potential risk to female or male members of staff and the general public.”

The details of these proposed DBS checks remain undecided, but Harrison says the Welsh government is working closely with tattooers to compose guidelines. “If, for example, you’ve been convicted of tattooing anyone under the legal age, that would potentially prevent you from getting a license,” he says. “Same if you have multiple convictions for sexual assault. That could also prevent you from getting a license. The list of crimes or the criteria that will prevent you from getting a license has yet to be confirmed, but generally, it’s there for the public’s protection.” Research shows, for example, that background checks curb things like gun violence.

Not all tattoo artists feel that DBS checks are the way forward, though. One prominent English tattooer, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me, “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the spate of mob justice we had during lockdown regarding alleged sexual predation in tattooing, which is gross, no doubt. But this seems like a heavy-handed solution to me. Governments don’t understand or care about tattooing, and it’s unlikely they’ll stop at searching people’s history for sex crimes. I think if you’ve been convicted in a court of law for a sex crime, it’s fair enough that you don’t work around vulnerable people. However, violent crime has already been mentioned as part of the checks, and then I think you end up including a whole host of very singular incidents that aren’t very clear-cut that people should be able to move on from and that are largely due to environment and circumstance, rather than a predatory nature.”

“It will ultimately lead to a further gentrification of tattooing,” they continue. “The very nature of the conversation around DBS checks and government intervention in tattooing is one-sided, because it’s unlikely that anyone who has a violent past is going to join the conversation for fear of damage to their reputation. And so, you just have squeaky clean and green body art practitioners dictating what tattooing is going to look like and sort of homogenizing it from within, all whilst under the illusion that this will make it safe.” (It should also be noted that sexual predators rarely have criminal records, anyway, because police remain skeptical of victims who report sexual crimes.)

There are some valid concerns here: In England and Wales, DBS checks, which any employer can require, have been ridiculed for shattering careers over even minor confrontations with police. For instance, The Independent chronicles the case of a woman who “committed suicide after she lost her job for failing to disclose a disorder fine for ‘snorting like a pig’ at an undercover police officer when at university.”

Likewise, in the U.S., research shows that pre-employment background checks discriminate against millions of Americans. Not only do background checks disproportionately impact racial minorities, who, on average, have higher incarceration rates — in 2019, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion charges were brought against Walmart for their background checks — they’re also often fraught with errors, employers rarely know how to make sense of the legal jargon they consist of, and the police forces behind them lack transparency all around. 

For these reasons, more and more American states are adopting “Ban the Box” laws to provide applicants an unbiased chance at employment by removing conviction history questions from job applications, pushing background checks to later in the hiring process.

However, those who support DBS checks are confident that only violent and sexual offenders will be kept out of the tattoo industry by them. “People might worry if they’ve committed a minor offense that would prevent them from tattooing, but I don’t believe that would be the case,” says Harrison. “People just want to be able to feel safe when getting a tattoo and not have to worry if the person tattooing them could potentially sexually assault them or be inappropriate.” Note that DBS checks in the U.K. are subject to a rehabilitation period, where you no longer need to tell potential employers about your past convictions after a certain amount of time.

Harrison further explains, “We work in an industry where we’re oftentimes in close proximity and sometimes tattooing intimate areas. I think the least we can do is put our clients at ease by doing these checks.”

The problem is that trusting the government to police the tattoo industry goes against the beliefs of many tattoo artists, who’ve long viewed their community as a safe haven for outcasts and rejects. As the tattooer who asked to remain anonymous tells me, “It will affect too many people who’ve turned their lives around with the discipline and devotion tattooing requires. That, and I don’t believe that governments have our interests at heart. Rather, they just want to make more money in ambient ways.” (That said, the £23 (slightly less than $37) a pop in government fees for DBS checks hardly seems like a noteworthy money-maker.)

Fees aside, tattoo artists have traditionally had good reason for not trusting the government: In the U.S., state governments first recognized tattooing by making it illegal in 1961, blaming tattoo parlors for fueling an outbreak of hepatitis. It remained illegal for more than 30 years and still has no real federal backing, so you can see why many in the industry may have a distaste for the government stepping into their businesses all of the sudden. As tattoo artist Tamara Santibañez explains in a recent VICE article, “Though I do believe tattooers should have more resources for navigating professional needs, I simultaneously believe that trying to standardize those needs and serve them with a single organization would leave out and further marginalize many of the people practicing tattooing who aren’t acknowledged by tattoo artists in shops.”

But for some in the industry, government involvement is long overdue. “The industry has been fairly unregulated over the years,” Harrison says. “Growing popularity and the ease of purchasing equipment from eBay increases the potential risk to the public. Personally, I think it’s a good move by the government. I’ve already done a DBS check.”

Of course, the potential impacts of background checks span far beyond the tattoo industry, and experts have attempted to find a reasonable middle ground for some time now — the obvious suggestion is writing up very specific legislation that both protects the public from violent offenders while preventing unwarranted discrimination against those with minor criminal convictions. It may not completely solve the problem of predators in tattooing, but it seems like a perfectly reasonable start in the effort to protect people, at least. Because if anything is clear from the many allegedly abusive tattooers who continue to tattoo, the industry needs a solution beyond well-intentioned Instagram vigilantism.