OKLAHOMA CITY – The stain is finally leaving tattoo artist Brandon Mull's profession.
Tattooing has been banned in Oklahoma for more than four decades, but artists like Mull have applied their body art in commercial shops that defied state law and operated without health rules designed to protect their customers and themselves from diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.
Gov. Brad Henry is expected to sign legislation this week that eliminates Oklahoma's distinction as the only U.S. state to prohibit tattooing and establishes a regulatory system for tattoo artists and parlors.
"It's about time," said Mull, an artist at Just Another Hole Body Arts Studio in Broken Arrow.
"It's something I've wanted to happen for 10 years and it's actually happening," said Mull, who is part of a group of activists that called on state lawmakers to license their profession.
Oklahoma banned tattooing in 1963 and attempts to lift it over the past decade have been opposed on health and safety as well as moral grounds. Licenses and regulations for tattoo artists and parlors will be similar to those for body piercing, which have been in effect since 1999, state health officials said.
"It had to happen eventually," said Jason King, who is building a tattoo parlor next to his Oklahoma City body piercing shop. "It's not an issue of right and wrong. It's an issue of health and safety."
King and other professionals have been working with the state Department of Health for the past year to develop a set of health, safety and sanitation guidelines that tattoo artists must comply with before they are licensed.
Ted Evans, chief of consumer health services for the Health Department, said the guidelines are expected to be in place by Nov. 1, when the bill takes effect.
"We need to make sure all of these people are knowledgeable" to reduce the risk of spreading infection, Evans said.
The guidelines will require an apprenticeship program in which budding artists must work with licensed professionals before they are eligible for their own licenses, King said.
The new law would prohibit anyone under 18 and anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol from getting a tattoo.
Oklahoma became the only state to outlaw tattooing when South Carolina legalized the practice in 2004. But regulations weren't in place until two months ago, when the first legal tattoo was applied there.
A tattoo licensing bill that cleared a House committee in Oklahoma last year never got a hearing in the full House. The issue received a boost when it was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health, which expressed concern about an increase in hepatitis infections related to unsanitary tattooing practices.
Between 2000 and 2003, there was a 78 percent increase in new hepatitis C infections and 34 percent of the people infected reported they had a tattoo, according to the department.
In 2004, an investigation into an outbreak of hepatitis B in LeFlore County revealed a potential link to home tattooing practices. The same year, emergency workers in Atoka County reported antibiotic-resistant skin infections in four patients with recent nonprofessional tattoos.
In spite of the state's ban, many tattoo artists have operated in the open and advertised their services. Some have been cited. The charge is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and possible jail time.
"There's a lot of artists in this state who've gone through that. It's just a little bit ridiculous," Mull said.
Tattoo artists believe Oklahoma's ban was rendered ineffective in 2004 when charges of unlawful tattooing in Tulsa County were dismissed against two artists, including Mull.
The state law that bans tattooing defines a tattoo as "a permanent indelible mark" created by a needle that is visible on the skin. Defense attorneys argued that tattoos can be removed through laser surgery and other techniques, and are not permanent.
Many tattoo parlors in the state advertise tattoo removal.