Underage and inked in Central Kitsap

Andre Coleman, 17, a junior at Bremerton High School, has three tattoos. Coleman got his first tattoo when he was 16, and his sisters also got theirs before turning 18. It is against the law for tattoo artists to work on anyone under the age of 18, even with parent permission. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
Andre Coleman, 17, a junior at Bremerton High School, has three tattoos. Coleman got his first tattoo when he was 16, and his sisters also got theirs before turning 18. It is against the law for tattoo artists to work on anyone under the age of 18, even with parent permission.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

Stephen Dowden couldn’t wait. He warmed ink from a ballpoint pen, found a sewing needle and pricked himself in the wrist when he was 14 years old. Almost his entire body is covered in tattoos now.

Jarell Flora networked. Although he was too young to obtain a driver’s license, a family friend agreed to tattoo him in a living room when he was 15. Now the Bremerton High School student has five and plans to get more.

Nick Meyers waited. The Navy boatswain mate was curious, and tempted, but he was reluctant to cross his parents, who wanted him to wait for his 18th birthday.

“I really thought about it,” said Myers, who is now 21 and has five tattoos and believes he made the right decision.

Dowden, Flora and Meyers took different paths to getting their first tattoos, but they each expressed a desire to get inked before the age of 18. They are not alone.

Many young people in Bremerton and Central Kitsap don’t feel the apprehension Meyers did and turn to ink before they turn 18, most by way of unlicensed tattoo artists. They have friends, or friends of friends, who tattoo under the table, usually in garages or living rooms.

But unlike in past generations, where tattoos were fashion statements for convicts and sailors, overachieving kids are getting them.

Flora, 18, a basketball player and track and field athlete, got his first tattoo when he was a freshman and has no plans to stop. The Seattle University-bound senior says he had no problem getting his first, for a modest price, and he knows classmates who took a similar path.

“There are a lot of them,” he said.

It is against state law to apply a tattoo to a minor, so young people must either find shops that don’t follow the rules or turn to underground, unlicensed artists.

There is a riff between licensed and unlicensed artists, as well as between shops that strictly adhere to the 18-and-over policy and those that might not.

“Not all tattoos artists are the same,” said Michael O’Neil Smith, owner of Smitty’s Place in Bremerton. “There are legitimate guys and there are fly-by-the-night guys.”

Licensed tattoo artists call their unlicensed counterparts “scratchers,” a reference to them scratching their customers’ skin rather than applying a smooth, clean tattoo. Most unlicensed tattoo artists teach themselves, others learn in jail, and shop owners say they are the ones who ink minors and put young people at risk.

State lawmakers took notice and passed a bill in 2009 that will require all artists who tattoo at shops to have individual licenses beginning July 1. Shops also must adhere to strict sterilization policies, among other guidelines, and artists are required to get their license renewed annually.

Those requirements carry costs — both on shop owners and individual artists — and could squeeze the pocketbook of area shops that rely heavily on the Navy for business, which is hit and miss.

“We’ll be held to a pretty high standard as a business, which we welcome,” O’Neil Smith said. “The tattoo industry is going to get hit over the head.”

Kitsap’s tattoo industry — 10 shops total, with two in Silverdale and five in Bremerton — rely heavily on service members like Meyers. But even with Naval Base Kitsap’s installations and its roughly 10,000 active duty members of the Navy. O’Neil Smith guessed some of those shops may not survive under the new law because it is so strict.

“It’s going to change everything,” he said.

What it won’t change is demand by young people for ink. Kids see their favorite actors, sports stars and musicians with tattoos, and unregulated artists may see a bonanza.

Applying a tattoo to a minor has been a misdemeanor since 1995, yet young people and artists say it happens frequently.

For Flora, it was easy. The two-sport star had his nickname, “Juice,” tattooed vertically down the lower-side of one of his legs. A family friend did the work, charging a minimal fee. He has since been inked four more times and has yet to turn 19.

“I got addicted to them, I guess,” he said.

No law can regulate the lure of ink in young people.

Dowden, who is now 22, has always been fascinated by body art. His interest peaked when he tried to tattoo himself at the age of 14, but it started when he was even younger.

“Anytime I had a chance to get a pen in my hand, I would draw all over myself,” he said.

Many parents, like Meyers’, try to stop their children from getting tattoos. Others, however, support the ink.

Leslie Taganas, of Bremerton, has three children who received tattoos prior to the age of 18. Her 21- and 23-year old daughters were both inked pre-18, as was her son, who was 16 when he received his first tattoo.

Taganas believes body art on teens is more acceptable than underage drinking or drugs, and often times, there is meaning behind the ink. Her son Andre Coleman, a junior at Bremerton High School and a standout on the varsity basketball team, has a tattoo of his siblings’ initials surrounding his mom’s name.

“I’m definitely for tattoos,” Taganas said. “They just need to think things though because it will last forever.”

Despite her pro-tattoo stance, Taganas admits one of Coleman’s tattoos must be touched up because it could look better. High-quality work is not guaranteed when getting a tattoo before the age of 18, so Taganas encourages parents to study up and communicate with their child before they do anything permanent.

Licensed artists say the law will be a good thing for the industry because it will level the playing field between shops — they’ll be required to adhere to a universal policy — and in turn, will protect of-age customers from unsanitary work.

“The clients will be able to walk into a shop and know it’s a clean, safe environment,” said ErinAshleigh Wehmeyer, a licensed artist at Golden Rule Body Piercing-Tattoo in Silverdale.

Some of the specific requirements have yet to be finalized, and exactly how they will be enforced also is unclear.

The state Department of Health will inspect shops, and the Department of Licensing will check businesses and individuals for valid licenses.

“We want to ensure all shops and operators are using sanitation procedures that are standardized,” said Christine Anthony, spokeswoman for licensing. “It’s going to protect customers.”

Bremerton’s Lilly Blackburn didn’t do any research. She was 14 years old when she asked her best friend, 13 at the time, to apply a tattoo to her ankle.

Her experience illustrates how a law meant to protect kids can backfire.

The work was completed in a living room, but it was shoddy and now Blackburn regrets the decision. Although Blackburn’s tattoo never got infected, and she is healthy today, she put her health at risk by going underground for a tattoo. Unsafe tattoo practices have been linked to hepatitis, tuberculosis, syphilis and HIV, among others. Chances of acquiring a disease are low if proper safety procedures are followed, experts said.

“I couldn’t go into a shop and get what I wanted,” said Blackburn, 19. “It was kind of a fad.”

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