Florida Tattoo Guild: Guardian Angels or Ulterior Motives?

Revelations of a state bill and a mysterious "guild" have spooked Florida tattooists
For a bill that aimed to overhaul Florida's regulation of the tattoo industry, it sure was quiet. Stealthy, almost. Senate Bill 1130, sponsored by Hallandale Beach Sen. Eleanor Sobel, was introduced February 2. It cruised through committee, then headed to the Florida House, where it flew through committees again. It was still a long way to becoming law, but who would object to safety in tattooing?

Especially since the driving force of the bill was the Florida Tattoo Artists Guild -- a nonprofit corporation that, by its name alone, seemed qualified to speak for the industry.

But the name is misleading. The guild has only about 40 members, and it consulted the thousands of other tattooists in Florida only after the bill had been drafted. Even then, tattooists around the state say they didn't receive letters the guild claims it mailed in late January, notifying them of the legislation and inviting them to a meeting February 16. That, plus the short notice, must be why only about 75 tattooists showed up for the discussion.

"I never received a letter," says Stevie Moon, whose eponymous tattoo parlor is at NE 26th Street and Federal Highway. "Every piece of junk mail is seen by three people before it's put in the garbage." Moon says that more than two dozen other tattoo parlors he's talked to didn't receive the notice either.

The guild's website was no help. Records show that floridatattooguild.com was created January 20 -- two weeks before the bill was introduced. The site contains no contact information for guild members or instructions on joining the guild. Many tattooists, it seems, learned of the legislation from this February 27 post on Juice. In the comments field of that post, artists railed against the bill. They accuse the guild of being a "scam" bent on "protectionism."

In fact, it appears the guild was guilty of little besides a lack of tact.

"I'm getting hammered pretty good about being a bad person," says Guild President William Hannong, a Fort Myers tattooist. "But the bill that's there will go through continuous changes. This is not etched in stone."

According to Hannong, the Guild had drafted legislation in the early Nineties that would provide a framework for licensing tattooists in Florida. And that's what Sobel's office adopted for the bill's original language, with the understanding that it would be amended after consultation with Florida tattooists.

Currently, tattooists must get an occupational license from a city or county and be supervised by a physician. But without formal tattoo licensure, says Hannong, there wasn't a way to go after "scratchers" - the unlicensed tattooists notorious for skimping on health standards.

The bill would make unlicensed tattooing a third-degree felony. The language that outraged non-guild tattooists, however, was contained in two provisions. One would punish an artist who had tattooed a client who had a "contagious disease." Another provision required that aspiring tattooists get licensed only after they get the recommendations of five licensed Florida tattooists.

To Moon and others, it looked like an arrangement that would lead to bribery and extortion. Hannong says that the Guild is already seeking to amend the bill so that the contagious disease rule will disappear from the next version. The five recommendations standard will be pared to just one if the Guild's amendments are accepted. Tattooists currently practicing in Florida won't need anyone's permission, as some seem to fear. Hannong says the legislation would ensure they're grandfathered in for licensure.

Still, nonguild members are angry about learning of the legislation so late. And they resent that Guild members they've never met are acting on their behalf. Says Moon: "The moral of the story: Tattooists got to pull together. Regardless of whether we like each other, we have to transcend that to protect ourselves. We can't let a couple of people make decisions for the entire state."

Hannong admits that his Guild ought to have devised a better way of alerting Florida tattooists. If Moon and others want to form a larger, more cohesive tattooists trade group, Hannong welcomes it. "I've been doing this for 17 years," he says of the Guild. "I'm tired; I don't want to do this anymore."

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