Ministers aim to clean up unregulated tattoo industry

A ban on carcinogenic material in tattoo ink and an artists’ registration system proposed, but critics say measures don’t go far enough

The health minister and environment minister have teamed up in an attempt to clean up what they termed the "Wild West" atmosphere in the Danish tattoo industry. 


In a press release, the Health Ministry says that it will ban tattoo ink containing carcinogenic materials and implement a 'registered tattooist' programme to ensure that tattoo artists live up to hygiene and education requirements. 


"Every year thousands of Danes get tattoos," the environment minister, Ida Auken (Socialistisk Folkeparti), said. "There are chemical substances [in tattoo ink] that are put into the skin and can be absorbed by the body, so therefore it is important that these substances do not present a health risk."


A study by the government's environmental protection agency, Miljøstyrelsen, revealed that around one in every five tattoo inks on the Danish market contain substances that can increase the risk of cancer. According to Auken, those substances will now be banned.


"There are currently basically no rules in the area today, but as Miljøstyrelsen's research clearly shows, there is a need to act," Auken said. 


The new requirements on tattoo ink will also require that the ink be sterile, another area that is currently not regulated. 


According to the health minister, Astrid Krag (Socialistisk Folkeparti), her recently announced proposal to implement a voluntary registration system will also protect consumers.


"More and more Danes are getting tattooed, so it is important that we protect them the best we can," Krag said. "By choosing a 'registered tattooist', one can be sure that the place is in order and that is not dangerous to get tattooed there."


Under the 'registered tattooist' scheme, tattoo artists would be given a sign similar to the Smileys used in the restaurant business that would convey to customers that the artist has undergone a basic education and that the shop's hygiene is up to par. 


But when Krag first announced the registration system back in October, it was criticised by doctors and tattooists for its voluntary nature.


“This is a health issue,” Jørgen Serup, a skin doctor at Bispebjerg Hospital, told Berlingske newspaper at the time. “To put tattoo artists in charge of it themselves is akin to having the fox guard the henhouse."


Johnny Hansen, the chairman of the Danish tattoo artists’ guild [Dansk Tatovør Laug], told Berlingske that he was positive about the proposed registration system, but said it should be obligatory and overseen by public authorities.


Those concerns were echoed today in response to the Health Ministry's announcement. British tattoo artist Alex – who has been tattooing in Copenhagen for 12 years – said the regulations would have little effect. 


"Every other EU country already has regulations on ink and on what you can and cannot use," Alex said. "So professional tattoo artists who are buying from professional suppliers only have regulated ink available." 


Alex didn't think the Smiley-like system would be of any help either. 


"I think it's all for show," Alex, who tattoos at Rites of Passage, said. "You can go to a studio and it might look clean, but if the people working there have no training, what does it matter? You can have all the Smileys in the world on the wall and still walk out with a bad tattoo."


Alex said he likely wouldn't bother with the registration system and suggested that if the government really wanted to do something productive, it would focus on the education aspect and ensure that tattoo artists have a certain level of blood training so they can learn about the dangers of cross-contamination. 


Sine Jensen, a spokesperson at the consumer watchdog Forbugerrådet, agreed that the ministers' plan was ineffective.


"It is simply too weak to make a voluntary system," Jensen told DR News. "If this is to benefit consumers, all tattooists need to be registered."


Jensen also criticised the ministry's plans for failing to include regulations over piercing and body modifications such as branding.


"There are no rules in that area and that means, in principle, that you can pierce a baby or perform a tongue splitting or branding on a teenager," Jensen told DR. 


The Health Ministry plans to accompany the tattoo ink regulations, which will go into effect within a year, with a public education campaign. The registration system will go into effect on July 1 if the law proposal is approved. 


Approximately 13 percent of Danes are tattooed and the number continues to rise, especially among women.