Tattoo As Art?

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Mike West: Cleveland made tattooing illegal about the same time servicemen were coming home from World War II showing off the fresh tattoos they received overseas. The shops were forced to operate outside the city limits until a lawsuit brought by a tattoo shop owner and the American Civil Liberties Union forced the city to let them in. Chief Assistant Law Director Joe Scott says since the city already allowed body piercing and probably would have lost the case, it dropped the ban. But Scott says the tattoo parlors will be closely monitored by the health department.

Joe Scott: Initially they are going to look for the things that are required by state law in terms of health regulations, the way they sterilize their equipment, the way they handle there equipment, the way they dispose of used equipment, those kinds of things.

MW: Tattoo shops have a reputation of being places where pictures are inked onto private parts and where biker types and undesirables hang out. Scott says parlors located just outside the city limits have not caused problems and that's one of the reasons the ban was dropped.

JS: We're not aware of any particular problem and I suspect that was part of the reason for making the change at this time that a lot of those types of concerns that people historically had were simply no longer an issue.

MW: Still, tattoo parlors are classified as adult businesses - that means strict rules on where and how they can operate. For example, they can't be next to other adult businesses and they have to be a thousand feet from schools and churches.

Merle Gordon: What we did insure is that we would not have a concentration of these types of establishments so they have to spaced apart and they have to be a certain feet away from a church or a religious institution, or a day care center or an elementary school again to try and limit the kind of exposure.

MW: City Councilwoman Merle Gordon, who doubts the city will become home to a rash of new tattoo shops now that the ban has been lifted. But she assures nervous residents that they will be safe.

MG: There were not a flood of folks who wanted to do this, there really aren't that many establishments throughout the state of ohio. But this is again, our concern is to ensure we don't have a preponderance of this type of activity in one district. And because the residents are really concerned that would attract things that would not be desirable.

MW: So exactly who are these tattoo peddlers? Natalie Roelle is one of them. She works here at this tattoo shop in downtown Willoughby. The buzzing is from a gun being used to give a young woman a small tattoo on her ankle. It's shop is clean, well lit and wallpapered with pictures of people with tattoos, designs and samples for customers to choose from. Roelle is outraged that city leaders think of her business in the same light as naked dancers and shops that sell pornographic books and videos.

Natalie Roelle: I definitely believe there should be age limits on it because it is such a permanent thing. But I can't understand why we would be lumped with adult bookstores and such. This is art, it's just permanent. I don't understand, I just don't understand.

MW: A University of Arkansas study says the typical tattoo customer is a female college student between 18 and 30 years old. Roelle says parents shouldn't be afraid someone will tattoo their children because tattoo shops don't serve minors unless they have their parents permission.

NR: They need to have proper ID and they have to sign a release form. And if the 16-year-olds are coming to their parents saying they want tattoos, that's up to their parents to deal with, that's not our fault.

MW: Roelle wants everyone to view what she does as an art form and treat her craft with more respect. Robert Thurmer agrees. He's the Director of Cleveland State University's Art Gallery.

Robert Thurmer: There's no question about it, it's relatively new - being considered fine and high art - but you know, there's a history, especially in the last century or so, of bringing into the purview of fine to high art things that were not previously considered fine or high art. Think of Andy Warhol and his soup cans - that was considered low art or popular art. Now with my salary I wouldn't be able to touch one.

MW: Thurmer says the art community has a growing appreciation of what tattoo artists produce. He feels society in general and lawmakers need to take another look at tattoos.

RT: I find it curious more than anything that this would be associated with adult businesses. I do know that the technology of tattooing has come an incredibly long way from the anchors and the roses with the hearts and stuff like that, now there are much finer lines that you can do. You can introduce different colors so there's absolutely no question that the art form itself is evolving and mostly due to technology. It's association with adult business is really puzzling to me.

MW: Tattoos parlors are apparently here to stay - there are at least eight in Cuyahoga County and more than 4,000 in the U.S., and that doesn't count the ones operating underground, something tattoo artists say is common in Cleveland. The tattoo business was also ranked as one of the top 10 growth businesses as of the late 90's. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.

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