Professional tattoo artists refer disparagingly to self-taught amateurs as “scratchers” and say they give the industry a bad name.
They’re similarly critical of studio owners who run “apprentice mills,” churning out practitioners with only a few months’ training.
It floods the market with shoddy work, and “we have to fix and cover all the mistakes,” Steve Lowery, the owner of Transcending Flesh, 118 W. Chestnut St., said.
This month, Lancaster City Council will vote on an amendment to city regulations that would make apprenticeships an official requirement for going into the tattoo or body-art business.
The change would help protect public health and safety and promote “a higher level of practice,” city Health Officer Kim Wissler said.
If it passes, tattoo and body art license applicants would have to show they have completed an apprenticeship under a licensed practitioner — at least three years for tattooing, at least 18 months for body art. Existing full-time licensed practitioners would be grandfathered in.
Apprenticeships would require a license authorizing trainees to work under the direct supervision of a business owner.
City Council is set to introduce the amendment Tuesday, which would allow a vote at its Feb. 26 meeting.
Raising the bar
Apprenticeships can be a slow process, but through it, “they get the proper knowledge,” Matt Hammond, owner of Royal Pain Tattoo, 459 N. Prince St., said.
“We don’t take any shortcuts,” he said.
At his shop, Andy Bryson is apprenticed to artist Jake Biller. He’s about a year into the process.
“It’s really taught me a lot,” said Bryson, who hopes to make tattooing his full-time career.
Lancaster has required tattoo and body art businesses and practitioners to be licensed since 2007. The city has 17 licensed establishments and about 55 individuals, Wissler said.
To get a city license, applicants must have certain health and safety certifications, but until now, no particular training apart from that has been required.
About a year ago, Wissler said, she and about half a dozen practitioners organized an informal “tattoo council.” It meets every few months to discuss local industry concerns.
For the artists, enacting an apprenticeship standard was a priority, Wissler said: “They were very adamant about wanting a change.”
The apprenticeship amendment would raise the bar and help weed out scratchers, Hammond said.
Ben “Mee” Feld, who owns Tattooing by Mee at 714 Columbia Ave., said he’s had seven or eight apprentices during his 32-year career.
They would have a five-year contract, and “we were halfway through before they got near a (tattoo) machine,” said Feld, whose father and stepfather were tattoo artists as well.
Colin Nolt owns Epicdermis at 2028 State St., East Petersburg. The borough doesn’t have a tattoo ordinance, so he self-polices, he said.
After hearing about the city’s plan, he said: “I’d be on board with that 100 percent.” Regulations, whether state or municipal, are “common sense,” he said.
Wissler acknowledged there are probably unlicensed practitioners operating in Lancaster, but unless the city gets a tip, it’s hard to catch them. One unlicensed establishment was shut down about eight years ago, she said.
Unregulated tattooing and piercing poses health risks, she said. If artists don’t follow established precautions, clients can end up with serious diseases, such as hepatitis or an antibiotic-resistant infection.
While many states regulate tattoos and body art, Pennsylvania does not, requiring only that a parent or guardian give consent and be present when procedures are done on a minor.