When it comes to discussing what has taken place with the legislative changes in Arkansas, I still feel a little uneasy saying that it is all said and done. I think that after over a year of walking on eggshells—we didn’t celebrate too early or get our hopes up before anything was finalized—has had a lasting effect on my ability to really relax now that things are officially signed and in place as law. The whole process really has been two stories unfolding, side-by-side, as we both fought for higher standards to be put in place surrounding body art, yet at the same time tried to prevent a ban on scarification*. Steve Joyner handed me some of the best advice at the very beginning of this whole process when he made it clear that we would hate this before it was over, but that it would be worth it. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. After countless nights crying at my laptop as I removed paragraph after paragraph that the state wouldn’t agree to budge on—and times where I genuinely didn’t know if I was capable of accomplishing what I had set out to do—those words now make complete sense. It was one of the most rewarding and—at times—most heartbreaking projects I have ever had the pleasure of working on.
For the sake of this not becoming a novel, the brief history of how this started began when the Arkansas Department of Health held a meeting with a group of two piercers—one permanent cosmetic artist and around ten tattoo artists—to discuss the idea of making legislative changes that might help our state. While the others attending the meeting came unprepared with any sort of solutions to the complaints they had with our current laws, Dustin Jackson and I took the advice of Steve Joyner by meeting beforehand; we arrived prepared with a printed copy of Oregon’s body art laws, notes on improved training requirements we felt were necessary, and resources that the state could turn to for updated piercing information and facts. Our planning paid off, and after the first meeting it became clear that the state was relying on the two of us to hand them the legislation we wanted to see in place; without really knowing it, we had jumped straight into the deep end of the pool.
The next year was a blur of meetings with each other, the state, and Steve as he guided us through the many hoops that must be jumped through to write and implement legislative changes. The seemingly endless lineup of meetings to keep the momentum going were difficult on us all; the meetings required hours of driving, several days at a time away from our work as well as our families, and—for Steve—five meetings that involved long flights out from California. To say that it was a crash course for Dustin and I would be an understatement, and to add to the turbulence that comes with any change to an industry, the state’s attempts to send out ‘sample’ drafts of what the new laws might look like turned our already difficult task into an all out uphill battle to calm nerves and dispel the misconceptions it created. The only positive reaction that came from the uproar it caused was the formation of the Arkansas Body Modification Association by Joe Phillips. The ABMA is a group open to all licensed Arkansas artists which, for the first time, brought us together in an organized and unified way to work toward a common goal as opposed to fighting against ourselves. It couldn’t have come together at a better time. The AMBA allowed us to have a small network of artists that voted together on the issues that Dustin and I had sought to change; it turned the ideas of two people into a voice that could actually represent the body art industry.
With the approval of the Department of Health, the State Board of Private Career Education, and a Senator (who sponsored the bill), we thought we were finally on our way to a successful piece of legislation. But before any celebration could take place, I received word that a Senator was drafting a bill to ban certain forms of body art, including scarification. That Senator happened to be Missy Irvin who, as our sponsor, held the future of our body art bill in her hands. We had some warning that this might take place (thanks to a previous meeting in which the attorney for the Department of Health questioned us about several forms of heavy body modification). Even so, I was unprepared as I read the draft she had written. Being the only active scarification artist in my state (at least, that I was aware of), it was incredibly difficult to not feel like I had been slapped in the face by the people I had dedicated so many hours of work to. After several failed attempts to educate those presenting the ban about the inaccuracies throughout their bill, I realized that the decision was not whether or not to fight this, but how to fight this and who would I have to stand with me.
This is where the story really divides between our bill, SB388, and the modification ban, SB387. I wish that I could write this from an unbiased or universal viewpoint of all those involved, but it would be impossible to even try. I can’t really explain the internal conflict of knowing that fighting for something I loved and believed in might destroy the year of work that we had all put in with SB388. Steve and I discussed the possible consequences of fighting against the same Senator that had the power to kill our bill before it was ever heard, and the rational side of me knew that if it absolutely came down to it I would have to put the interest of my industry as a piercer first. (He was a good enough friend to not sugar coat the fact that I was—very likely—fighting a losing battle, one that would pit me against a Senator and the Department of Health to defend scarification as a legitimate form of body art.) The odds were not good, and the impact on SB388 could have been grave if it wasn’t approached carefully.
The first round of fighting was broken between two meetings in the Senate Committee for Public Health, Welfare, and Labor. It was somewhat surreal that I was personally responsible for speaking on behalf of my industry. Although I expected to be terrified, I felt—more than anything—fortunate to have those I worked with trust me to be in this position. In the end, the overwhelming crush of losing the fight for scarification was countered by the unanimous vote in favor of our body art bill, SB388. With an unexpected show of media attention on the potential scarification ban, and SB388 looking more and more likely to pass on through the house, we were given a difficult decision; take a gamble by talking to the media (which could easily turn on us) or roll over and allow scarification to silently become illegal. We took the gamble and began speaking out online, in the media, and to other artists to try and get as much awareness as possible before the House Committee meeting—which would be our last chance to overturn the ban. The gamble paid off, and the worldwide response was incredible; emails poured into the inboxes of the House members scheduled to vote on both bills.
The day before the meeting at the House, Senator Irvin and the Department of Health offered to amend the bill to meet our requests if, in turn, we would quit speaking against it in the media and agree not to oppose it in the committee meeting. I was speechless; not only were they no longer considering banning scarification, they were willing to list it as a regulated form of body art (one which individuals can be licensed in—like tattooing, piercing, and branding). Our voice had finally been heard! We chose to speak in favor of the bill at the meeting in order reassure the members of the committee, who had received email after email against it, that the amendments satisfied the needs of our industry. In the end, both bills passed unanimously.
I honestly have no words that can explain the combination of relief, excitement, disbelief, and gratefulness I realized once we had won. Although much of what we want to accomplish will come in the months ahead, as we write the rules and regulations, our biggest battle is now behind us. With this bill in place, the most significant advances for the piercing industry will include requiring that all steel and titanium jewelry for initial piercing meet ASTM standards (accompanied with mill test certificates), requiring all acceptable materials for initial piercing will be listed in the rules and regulations, banning the use of piercing guns outside of the earlobe, setting age limits set for all body art procedures, and requiring yearly BBP certification for artists, and stricter requirements for body art instructors. And, hopefully, this list will only continue to grow as we move forward over the next few months.
Oddly, the most valuable lesson I learned from this was not about legislative writing, legalities, or how to create change in my state. It was about support, the importance of all of us supporting each other as an industry. There were several points in this fight that I felt utterly alone, overwhelmed, and defeated because I had no idea how I would win such an unbalanced fight. The victory in scarification did not come from me speaking against it; it came from groups like the APP who chose to take a stance and support what we were fighting against—even though it was outside of their focus on body piercing—the A.P.T.P.I. and all the individuals who helped us from overseas, from tattoo artists to body piercers, who were willing to stand behind us with nothing to gain. Our state’s fight is done for now, but there will always be another one taking place. Individually, we might be body piercers, tattoo artists, modification artists, or whatever else we identify as, but if we don’t learn to fight for each other as one unified industry, we will all suffer because of it.
Thank you so much to Steve Joyner for guiding us through this process, as well as the A.P.T.P.I, ABMA, and the countless individuals who reached out to make sure that our very small group knew that we were not alone. A very special thank you to the APP for taking such a huge step by supporting us in keeping scarification a safe and regulated practice in our state.
*In our state, Branding is listed as a separate form of body art from scarification. Throughout this article, scarification is intended to specifically mean forms of cutting the skin to form an intentional scar as opposed to all forms of scarification in general.