April 4, 2003     
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or 36 years, there were no tattoo shop storefronts in New York City - not even on the Bowery, where modern tattooing was invented in the 1890s. There were no televisions in street-level store windows showing people getting tattoos, no advertising - save for the tattoos themselves - fliers or vague messages in the back of the Village Voice. Every Tom had to know Dick who knew Harry who knew where to get a tattoo.

Tattooing in New York City went underground after the City Health Department found what it said were a series of blood-borne hepatitis cases coming from tattoo parlors in 1961. Tattoos were done on the second story of buildings on Canal Street, in basements, apartments and backrooms.

PHOTO: AP Archive
Tattoo artists were banned from working in New York City for 36 years after a Hepatitis B scare in 1961.

They were illegal - medical misdemeanors, despite the fact that health officials' worries over a spread of Hepatitis B never materialized. But what had once been an outsider art began working its way into mainstream America just as New York outlawed tattooing.

In the 1960s, Lyle Tuttle tattooed Janis Joplin. The 1970s brought tattoos into a new youth culture through rock and roll. Spider Webb, a well-known artist, protested the ban by tattooing porn star Annie Sprinkle on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for violating health law. Webb appealed the case, which the New York State Supreme Court refused to hear.

By the 1980s, tattooing had become popular. It was no longer a part of the subculture, even people with Sorbonne and Harvard educations were getting them, as well as curators at well-known art museums. MTV was taking over cable television and there was hardly a band that did not have tattoos.

Wes Wood, who began tattooing in 1987 out of his apartment, believes it was the inward focus of the 1980s that really brought tattoos into the forefront and into a more mainstream audience. Like self-help books and jogging trends, tattoos and piercing were symptoms of what was going on in American society.

"It's the story of how the country changed and how people of the country changed because the Cold War was over," said Wood, a tattoo supplier. "The outward direction to an inward direction, and tattooing is a symptom of those changes. Just because one after another, it became more accepted. People saw no problem with tattoos."

Nationally and internationally, it was viewed more and more as a legitimate art form, and artists began to consider tattooing as a field to go into, where they could make a living and sell their art, said Clayton Patterson, who heads the New York Tattoo Society.

n 1985, 24 years after tattooing was banned in New York and 12 years before it would again be legalized, the New York Tattoo Society was formed in a Sixth Street gallery. It would serve as a monthly meeting place for tattoo artists from across the city to come together, share ideas, learn better techniques.

The society would eventually serve as the catalyst for legalization. Within a few years, it had grown tremendously, Patterson said. Not just with the rumored 50 full-time tattoo artists, but students just out of art school and amateurs.

"There was a young aggressive, highly motivated group of people. So, you have the rest of the country really starting to develop and to push tattooing," Patterson said. "You had this pocket of people who started forming and getting together like a club. What you got was this tattoo society is this group of people that were really enthused about trying to become recognized as tattoo artists.

"It really seemed an unfortunate affair that here you have New York City, sort of recognized, at least from its own perspective, as the art capital of the world," he said. "So, here you have the art capital of the world, and no opportunity for this group of artists to make it."

Underground shops began to flourish in the backrooms of New York. And by 1995, some tattoo artists began advertising in the back pages of alternative newspapers like the Village Voice and New York Press. "Little by little, we found no one said anything," Wood said. "By the 1990s, tattoo artists were not outlaws. They had kids, mortgages, homes. They are ordinary people."

It became clear that the only way to deal with the problem tattoo artists were facing in trying to legitimize their businesses was to deal with the law.
Then-Councilwoman Kathryn Freed found out that tattooing was illegal in New York when one of her employees went to get one in 1996, Patterson said. She decided to challenge the 1961 law. Patterson and Wood worked with her to coordinate the effort to legalize.

hey worked for almost a year, Patterson said, going to every tattoo shop in the city, talking to tattoo artists, holding meetings, working with artists who were opposed to the bill, speaking at City Hall and other places around New York.

Wood said he got a fax two weeks before a council meeting to decide on a final vote to legalize tattooing. It was to include "massive regulations" such as $5,000 licensing fees, restrictions on square footage, intensity of light bulbs around the shop, material for walls and floors. He and Patterson decided to challenge many of those regulations that would hinder the ability of tattoo shops to do business.

They found an unexpected ally in the Health Department, which wanted no regulations set upon the tattoo industry because there was no evidence it was needed (there had not been a single outbreak of Hepatitis in the almost 40 years since the ban), and it would be too expensive.

Dr. Benjamin Mojica, Health Department deputy commissioner for disease prevention, testified before the council that bill, which gave the department no added money to enforce the law, was "a clear waste of critical public health resources," according to a story that ran in The New York Times.

PHOTO: AP Archive
The first New York Tattoo Convention was held in May 1997, three months after the tattooing was legalized again.

After a second draft of the bill was composed, it passed in February 1997 by a vote of 38 to 7 with one abstention. Local Law 12 of 1997 requires that tattoo artists be older than 18, with no convictions under state law for tattooing anyone under the age of 18, which is still illegal in New York.

They have to pass a Health Department examination and pay $100 every two years for a license. Tattoo artists found guilty of operating illegally would face fines ranging from $300 to $1,000.

It was a triumph for the tattoo artists in New York. They coordinated the first ever Tattoo Convention that May to celebrate (It is now in its sixth year). And the industry has taken off, with tattoo studios throughout the city.

"Once it became established in New York as a business, nobody thought 'Oh my God, there's a tattoo studio here,'" Patterson said. "Now it's sort of integrated into society without all of the stigma that it used to have attached to it." •