* Parlors not forbidden in Forsyth County, just limited.
To many tattoo artists, skin is a blank canvas and every tattoo tells a story.
“This is the last place for the true artist,” said Dwayne Matthews, the owner of Magick Dragon Tattoo in Gainesville. “This is their last stand. They haven’t come up with a computer to do tattoos yet.”
Matthews set up shop 11 years ago and has watched as the industry has changed.
The year he opened, there was little competition in Hall County. One shop was run by a notorious drunk, he said, and another had a reputation for illegal drugs.
But these days, tattoos have a broader appeal. Matthews said he sees a cross section of the community in his shop.
“It’s just become more socially acceptable,” he said.
Added Scott Stripling, an artist at Magick Dragon: “I’ve tattooed crackheads and I’ve tattooed (school) principals.”
In response to the growing popularity of tattoos, Hall County’s health department has begun regulating tattoo shops to create health and safety standards.
The new regulations require each technician, a tattoo or piercing artist to obtain a $50 permit and each body art establishment to purchase a $275 permit. For each subsequent year, each establishment will pay a $150 annual fee, each technician a $20 fee.
Neighboring Dawson County has had tattoo studio regulations in place for close to a decade. By all accounts, there are no tattoo shops in Forsyth County.
“I run a pretty tight shop here. We always have,” said Bob Shelton, who has owned and operated Dragon’s Den tattoo shop near the War Hill community for nearly 16 years.
“The clients, they watch us unwrap the needles and the sterile packs before we give the tattoos. We’ve been regulated so long, it’s like second nature for us.”
As one of the oldest shops in northeast Georgia, Dragon’s Den welcomes the strict rules and regulations from the county, Shelton said.
“There are so many bad things out there, like hepatitis and HIV, the industry needs to have someone watching over it,” he said.
Shelton said he knows of several local amateur tattoo artists who travel the county, giving tattoos for discounted prices at parties.
“Those are the ones people need to worry about,” he said. “I’ve had so many people come to my shop after one of these jobs to fix the problems or cover the work completely.”
The amateurs often ignore the age restrictions.
“In my shop, no one under 18 is getting a tattoo, even with parental consent ... no matter what,” Shelton said.
Rob Ingram, who owns Gold City Ink, behind the outlet mall off Ga. 400, has also seen first hand the problems associated with tattoos from unregulated artists.
“My responsibility is to make sure we’re doing everything on the front end of tattooing,” he said. “We really feel like we are one of the premier shops in north Georgia. You have to do what you can to make the studio clean.”
Ingram left the health care laundry industry to open his shop, noting he knew all about “cross contamination, vaccinations, employee safeguards.”
“We do what’s required and more,” he said. “When we opened in late 2007 and applied for permits, the artists had to demonstrate their knowledge of infection control.”
Permits issued in Dawson County must be renewed each year and apply only to the individual and facility for which they are issued.
“I think that’s huge,” Ingram said. “The artists can’t take their permit and go home to give a tattoo.”
Both Ingram and Shelton communicate with Dawson County Environmental Health officials on a regular basis to stay on top of any new county regulations and guidelines pertaining to their businesses.
Kent Garrison, head of Environmental Health, said his office inspects the two studios twice a year.
Pat Braswell, Hall County’s manager for environmental health, said the new regulations have gone over well with the five tattoo shops there.
“It’s been a very smooth process,” Braswell said. “They’ve all been extremely cooperative.”
She said many of the shops even helped the health department form the regulations, which took effect in January.
“They seem to be really excited about having that health department certificate,” Braswell said.
Like Forsyth County, there are no tattoo shops in unincorporated Hall County. There are four in Gainesville and one in Oakwood.
“We don’t prohibit them, but we have some pretty strict regulations,” said Susan Rector, business license director for Hall County. “You have to be in the medical field in order to be a tattoo operator.”
Rector said a certificate proving the applicant is a nurse, doctor or physician’s assistant is required to get a license, plus inspections from health department.
Michele Hester of the FCN regional staff contributed to this report.