Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from Obscure Magazine (September 2013).
Recently, while scrolling through Facebook, I crashed head-first into an article titled “Bill to Ban Certain Tattoos, Body Piercings Passes Senate.” Glaring back at me was a close-up of a girl covered in tattoos, piercings, and neon colored hair with the words “BANNED” stamped across the image. NO WAY, I thought. There is no way, in this day and age, that any U.S. state could outlaw tattoos…
I was hooked. I clicked the link.
I was not surprised to find an article barking about how an Arkansas Senator is on a mission to limit the freedom of creative expression in her state. The majority of the reviews of this particular article were of similar tone: Anger, frustration, fear, offense. Certainly our freedom to be tattooed, pierced, scarred, and branded is protected under freedom of speech. Is Big Brother watching us?
Seeing this uproar intrigued me. I had to know more. Without much difficulty, I found the actual senate bill in question: “Senate Bill 387. Arkansas Senate Bill. To Limit Body Art Procedures.” This bill has been sponsored by Arkansas Republican Senator, Missy Irvin.
I read it all the way through. In its first draft, the language was rather vague. It was not necessarily banning or outlawing anything, but the spectrum of what was being considered a “piercing” or a “piercer” (among other definitions) was very broad. Technically, under the original language, even naval piercings would have been made illegal if the bill was passed into law. However, there were modifications made to that vague, original language. I wanted to know who was responsible for those modifications.
My investigation continued. I emailed the sponsoring Senator, personally, and began my hunt for whoever may have helped modify the language of the original bill. I found Misty Forsberg, a piercer and scarification specialist from Southtown Tattoo & Body Piercing in Fort Smith, Arkansas (the irony is not lost on me that the modifier to the bill’s language is a body modification artist). Irvin and Forsberg responded to me and they were both extremely open and helpful in teaching me about what happened, how it started, how it ended, and everything in between.
The battle lasted about a year. There were significant technicalities to clarify. Both sides had to absorb vast amounts of education to be able to cohesively speak about this piece of legislature.
In an interview, Forsberg told me “essentially, the state took an interest in heavy modification and held a meeting in which [owner-operator of Anchor Tattoo and Piercing Studio in North Bryant, Arkansas] Dustin Jackson, [Association of Professional Piercers Representative] Steve Joyner, and I were asked about the modifications [the state] had heard of or found online. We did our best to educate them on the areas they asked about, and encourage them to work with our community rather than trying to write legislation for us with little to no knowledge of the subject.” ¹
With the support of the ABMA (Arkansas Body Modification Association), the APTPI (Associazione Piercers e Tatuatori Professionisti Italiani), letter writing from the community, international support, and varying levels of outrage being poured out on social media networks, the body modification artists were able to appeal to the Senator and the state government to clarify the language.
The vague language in the first draft of the bill was revised. For any current or potential body modification clients, the most important thing to know about the final draft of the bill is: NOTHING WAS MADE ILLEGAL. “The final result was the bill that passed, SB387, defined scarification as a form of body art, but still banned subdermal implants from being performed by licensed Arkansas body artists, with no criminal penalty listed.”¹ To clarify, this means if you want a subdermal implant and you live in Arkansas, you now have to go to a licensed medical professional instead of a piercer or a tattoo artist.
The bill defining scarification as a form of body art changes nothing about its legality. All it means is: scarification is now recognized as a “real” art form – similar to the military recognizing Paganism as a “real” religion to print on government-issued dog tags. To me, this is a positive change. More openly-recognized diversity in the body modification industry will help avoid situations like this in the future (for example: naval piercings being lumped into the same category as subdermal implants).
While the limitations to who can perform subdermal implants can be considered rather disheartening, in the long run, it is not a significant loss to the industry. “There have been several people upset to see any ban, and I agree that it isn’t entirely what we would have liked to see. One day it may reach a point when [subdermal implants] become a licensed practice, but that day isn’t today. For now, I feel the compromise we reached isn’t a step backward for that industry.”¹ Think about how bad the results of this battle could have been. We live to fight another day.
Something else worth considering is the differences between the artists and the government involved. Both parties worked together to find a mutually agreed-upon middle ground that made everybody as happy as possible. In an email correspondence, Senator Irvin told me “Not everything you read on the Internet is truth. I completely reject the idea that I somehow am limiting freedom of expression when the tattoo artists of my state wrote this bill along with me, the Arkansas Department of Health and other legislators from both sides of the aisle.”² Through hard work, discipline, open communication, and mutual education, these stereotypically different parties were able to find compromise.
Anybody who is tattooed, pierced, or modified has likely experienced some sort of discrimination – myself included. Very often, being modified gives “conservative” people the impression that we are less educated or of questionable morals. We must, however, realize that the conservatives also face a similar type of discrimination from us, the modified. I will bet when you read “Republican Senator,” you automatically assumed that Missy Irvin would be cold-hearted, close-minded, and unmoving on her stance to ban certain types of body modification. I will be the first to admit that I was afraid that would be true, too, but she then told me “I am proud of our work and was honored to work with a very fine group of professionals with a high code of ethics. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them and their passion for their art, industry and clients.”²
Admit it. That is awesome.
The professional respect did not stop there. Misty Forsberg expressed to me “the misinformation which has been posted online does not help our fight here, and, if anything, sets us back with that progress. More importantly, we hope that people realize the rude and disrespectful comments made toward Missy Irvin that are being encouraged do nothing but make us look like the unprofessional, unintelligent people that many state representatives might assume we are. She and our industry might not see eye to eye, but in the end she chose to work with us rather than push forward with a bill that could have potentially harmed our industry a great deal. She shook our hands when we won, and she admitted that her view of who we are was different than when she first came into this. We could all do with being polite enough to show the same level of professional courtesy.”¹
If you learn nothing else from this article, learn that.
What scares me most, at this point, is that just because something is illegal does not mean people will stop. If somebody wants a subdermal implant in Arkansas but does not want to pay for a “licensed medical professional” (basically a plastic surgeon), he or she might find an underground artist to perform the procedure behind closed doors, against regulations. This poses just as much risk as getting a tattoo out of some dude’s garage. You, the client, will be at a higher risk of exposure to infection, blood-borne diseases, and rejection of the piercing, implant, or tattoo that you might get.
Always do your research. Always be smart. Always go to a professional. In my humble opinion, follow the old adage of “good tattoos ain’t cheap, and cheap tattoos ain’t good.” It is so true in so many different contexts. Do not sacrifice your health, your appearance, your pride, or even your wallet for something that only seems easier or cheaper.
I know reading about politics can be about as thrilling as a root canal, but it is important for all of us to stay abreast of any changes to the industry. The best way to gain acceptance for our respective forms of creative expression is to keep ourselves educated, informed, and professional. Just because this particular incident happened in Arkansas does not mean it cannot or will not happen in your state at some point. In an article published by the A.P.P., Forsberg stated “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.”³
Senate Bill 387 was passed into law earlier this year.
Senator Missy Irvin and Scarification Specialist Misty Forsberg with a group of artists who helped work on SB387. Photo credit: Joe Phillips. Permission to print given by Misty Forsberg.
¹ Interview with Misty Forsberg via Facebook Messenger – 08/26/2013.
² Email correspondence with Senator Missy Irvin – 08/21/2013.
³ Misty Forsberg. “Point # 63 – Arkansas Legislation.” The Point – The Quarterly Journal of the Association of Professional Piercers. 05/04/2013.