Needle Point

State Sharpens Rules For Tattoo And Piercing Shops

Simon McCormack
5 min read
Needle Point
Maria Mercury gets both her nostrils pierced by Evolution Body Piercing artist Noah Babcock. (Crystal Sims)
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Piercing and tattoo artists in New Mexico will have to do an apprenticeship before practicing, and a fresh batch of inspectors will make the rounds and evaluate parlors.

Last week, the state’s
Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists (which oversees piercing studios and tattoo parlors) passed safety and health regulations that legally practicing artists need to be in compliance with as of May 16. The board’s actions came in response to House Bill 972, passed during the 2007 Legislative Session. The law instructs the board to create the new rules. Before they went into effect, Albuquerque was the state’s only municipality with any laws on the books regarding body art.

"Both practices are becoming more popular, and in most parts of the state, people had to rely on their own judgment to pick a safe place to get a tattoo or piercing," says Jeanine McTasney, the board’s body art administrator. "Now they can call the state and find out if a place is licensed."

McTasney says the rules are also designed with artists’ safety in mind, since they can contract blood-born pathogens or other diseases from customers.

Burque’s Unique Situation

Since 1999, Albuquerque’s body art shops have had to acquire a permit from the city to do business. The new requirements supercede Albuquerque’s ordinance, and even businesses with permits will need to apply for a license from the state.

Crystal Sims, chairperson of the state board and owner of
Evolution Body Piercing in Albuquerque, says a key difference between the city and state regulations is enforcement. "In Albuquerque, the inspectors in charge of investigating body art places are the same ones who inspect restaurants and swimming pools," Sims says. "They already have a lot on their plate without adding body art."

Although the state board’s inspectors also investigate hair and cosmetology establishments, Sims says the Legislature provided funding to hire more inspectors.

Safety First

What does a well-maintained tattoo or piercing shop look like? Patrick Stewart, the chief investigator for the state’s Boards and Commissions division, says he’s looking for several things when he walks through a business’s door. Clean procedure rooms, sharp-object containers, gloves, properly labeled tools and adequate washing stations are all requirements. Inspectors also make sure biohazardous materials are thrown away safely.

It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to get body art without a parent or guardian’s consent, so inspectors look for documentation saying all the work is legit.

If inspectors find anything that doesn’t jive with requirements, they can take immediate action against businesses. Depending on the type and number of offenses, businesses can be issued warnings, fines or be shut down. If business owners disagree with a penalty, they can file an appeal with the Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists. "We’re doing this with public safety in mind," Stewart says. "That’s our primary concern."

What it Takes

Established body artists have 180 days from May 16 to apply for re-permitting, and the decision will rest with the board. They have to show the board signed affidavits from customers and photos of past tattoos to get a license. Artists hoping to break into the biz are required to take 40 hours of classes at a tattoo or piercing school. The training will include CPR and blood-born pathogen training. They are obliged to also spend 1,500 hours being mentored one-on-one by a practicing artist.

Experienced artists won’t have to take classes or go through an apprenticeship, but many of them have already done both. Sims says the mentorship program is a key aspect of the new rules. "Our trade is usually learned through an apprenticeship because it’s the best way to do it," Sims says. "The 1,500 hours only breaks down to about nine months of full-time training. That’s really the bare minimum someone needs to get familiar with everything that’s involved in body art."

Legitimizing the Industry?

Sims and McTasney say they haven’t had anyone specifically complain to them about the regulations. Both admit there are probably some unhappy artists and some issues that will need to be ironed out. Sims says the requirements don’t specify whether artists licensed from other states are allowed to practice in New Mexico, and that will likely have to be dealt with in the future. "There are a few things that will need to be addressed at some point, but overall, the industry has been really supportive," Sims says.

Manuel Vega, who owns
Custom Tattoo Company, says he hopes the law will keep inexperienced artists out of the business. "I’d like to see the regulations get rid of some of these shit shops," Vega says. "These kids come into town with basically no experience, and they don’t know what they’re doing."

Board member and
Tinta Cantina Tattoo artist Jespah Torres says the regulations add another layer of professionalism to his craft. "People who are serious about this art and industry should be willing to go through all the steps it takes to ensure the health and safety of the people they serve," Torres says. "These are important steps to take for any legitimate industry."

For more info on the new law, visit the New Mexico Regulations and Licensing Department’s website:, or call (505) 476-4628.

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