CHARLESTON, SC — Samantha Grady rested her head on a cushion, lips pursed as an electric needle bobbed up and down along the tender flesh of her forearm.
Zeeeeee! Dab.Dab. Zeeeeee! Dab.Dab. And so it went as tattoo artist Betsy Gafgen inked the lines of an original composition on Grady's skin, pausing regularly to wipe the excess fluids from her epidermal canvas.
Grady, a 23-year-old diner worker, didn't so much as flinch at the pain as she lay prone inside Roses & Ruin Tattoo on Charleston's Meeting Street Road.
She'd been through it before, and would gladly go under the needle again.
“I love art, and I like to have it on me,” she said.
It seems she is in good company in South Carolina.
Since the state ended its ban on tattooing in 2004, more than 100 tattoo parlors have sprung up around the state, from Pickens to the Grand Strand and various points in between.
The business has become fiercely competitive along the way, with artists attempting ever more elaborate and creative designs to build clientele and grow their business. Some, like Gafgen, have art degrees and backgrounds in graphic design. That has raised the bar, as well as clients' expectations.
“People are more educated about tattoos, and if you don't run a tight ship, you're not going to last long in this industry,” said Mike Crumb, an artist at Neon Needle in Goose Creek. “If you don't know what you are doing, you will starve.”
Many artists post their work on social media sites to gain attention. Some also trash-talk their competition. And in one Charleston neighborhood, a petition drive against an incoming tattoo parlor was rumored to be the work of a competitor who wasn't keen on someone cutting into his business - a claim the competitor denies.
Some opponents worried that lifting the decades-old ban would invite drug use, pornography and assorted other evils they feared were associated with the tattoo shops. By and large, that hasn't happened.
A couple unfortunate incidents have occurred, including the 2012 death of a Columbia tattoo shop parlor owner who shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette in his Five Points shop. But most shops have stayed under-the-radar, followed the rules and attracted little negative attention, authorities said.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates tattoo parlors, has taken action against only 12 shops since 2006, according to records obtained by The Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Those actions involved permitting issues, such as failing to renew a license on time or attempting to open a shop within 1,000 feet of a church, a no-no under the law. None involved parlors in the greater Charleston area.
“Generally speaking, these facilities maintain satisfactory compliance and adherence to state regulations,” DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said.
DHEC did, however, pinpoint a bacteria outbreak at one Lowcountry tattoo parlor in 2000 after eight cases of infection were traced to the shop, Beasley said. He said he didn't know and couldn't access the name of the shop late last week. But he said that is the only such outbreak recorded in DHEC's files.
“We believe our inspection process typically helps prevent illness before it can occur,” he said.
Once considered a fringe activity associated with biker gangs, punk rockers and rowdy sailors, tattooing has entered the mainstream in recent times.
A 2010 Pew Research Center poll found that 23 percent of Americans have a tattoo, and 38 percent of those age 18 to 29 have at least one piece of body art. The Food and Drug Administration estimates 45 million Americans sport tattoos.
Area shops said military personnel and law enforcement officers make up a solid chunk of their business. But they also count doctors and lawyers among their clientele.
Jason Reed, owner of Mystic Tiki Tattoo in Summerville, said the oldest man he's tattooed was 81; the oldest woman, 75. The man got a feather to honor his Native American heritage; the woman, a “Star Trek” insignia.
He's done all manner of designs on all sorts of clients, including one woman who had a penchant for tattooing skeletons across her body. “It turned out she was a forensic anthropologist,” he said.
Down the hall from Reed, Robbie Joyner, a 34-year-old small-businessman from Goose Creek, lay on a padded table as artist Steve Beasley worked on an elaborate sleeve running the length of Joyner's arm, the whine of the needle cutting through the pulsing beat of a Montell Jordan song on the stereo. Joyner had put in about 21 hours on the table getting the sleeve inked, and he figured he had at least nine more to go.
“It's almost like therapy for me at this point,” Joyner said with a laugh as he cocked his head toward the needle. “It's kind of addictive. If I don't hear that noise, I can't sleep.”
Perhaps so, but that sound was dampened for decades in South Carolina, where tattoos were taboo in the eyes of the state.
South Carolina outlawed tattooing in the 1960s, with lawmakers fearing an epidemic of hepatitis similar to an outbreak that occurred in New York, supposedly traced to a tattoo artist working on Coney Island. Other states took similar measures. But by 2004, only South Carolina and Oklahoma still outlawed tattooing.
Underground artists known as “scratchers” plied their trade during this time, working out of living rooms and garages and rarely possessing formal training in the sanitary requirements of the job. Health concerns over unlicensed artists eventually convinced tattoo opponents in the Legislature to reverse the ban and regulate the parlors. In addition to sanitary measures, the state imposed restrictions against inking drunk people or tattooing the face, head or neck of another person.
Several communities around the state took a cautious approach to allowing the shops within their borders.
Charleston, for instance, relegated the shops to light industrial areas where they are neighbors with such businesses as auto body shops. Myrtle Beach kept them to light industrial and medical zones, resulting in most tattoo shops being clumped along Seaboard Street with strip clubs, piercing salons and lingerie stores.
Mike Kerin, an artist at Elite Ink in Myrtle Beach, said about 10 tattoo shops are clustered together in the shopping center where he's located, making for some stiff competition. “You really have to stay on top of your game,” he said.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, was a city councilman when the ban was lifted, and he was among those concerned about tattoo shops attracting riff-raff. Back in 2004, he suggested the parlors “have been connected with drugs, porn and pedophiles.”
Gilliard still contends that the shops belong on the outskirts of town, away from quiet neighborhoods, due to what he sees as their propensity to attract “loud motorcycles and crowds of young teenagers coming in.” But he has softened his view of the industry somewhat now that it is under a regulatory eye.
“I do think we've come a long way since (2004) with that type of business,” he said.
DHEC has two inspectors who monitor tattoo parlor compliance across the state, and they inspect each facility every three years to ensure they are abiding by state regulations, Beasley said.
Depending on who you talk to in the industry, that is plenty. Many parlors tout their cleanliness and the hospital-grade measures they take to sanitize equipment and properly dispose of materials that contain blood or potential pathogens. As they say, no one wants to make a customer sick or have the stigma of infection hanging over their shop.
Stories still circulate among artists about substandard shops where ashtrays and half-eaten food linger around workstations. And one artist said he bolted from a parlor after he found that it was fudging paperwork and dumping biohazards in the regular trash to save on disposal fees.
Kerin, of Myrtle Beach, hasn't seen that happen, but he agrees that some shops could tighten up their acts. “I wish the hygiene overall was on par with the level of artistic skill,” he said.
DHEC had scant information to provide on the one bacteria outbreak identified in the Lowcountry in 2011. Beasley said the agency's staff worked with the unnamed parlor to develop a corrective plan to help prevent further illness.
He said the agency's goal is to help prevent such incidents, and that DHEC inspectors “work with and educate parlor staff members to ensure they have the knowledge and training necessary to perform their jobs safely for themselves and their customers.”
All the enforcement-action records DHEC provided to The Post and Courier concerned licensing paperwork issues, failure to pay fees on time or improperly attempting to open a tattoo parlor too close to a church. Three Columbia shops and one in Florence were cited in recent months for licensing issues.
One of those shops, Black Kandy Tattoo in Columbia, was dinged for failing to renew its license and pay associated fees and penalties since February, according to a certified letter sent to parlor owner Anthony Patrick last month. He was told his license is no longer valid.
Patrick, reached at his studio last week, said he continues to operate and is unaware of any problems with his license. He also bristled at the scrutiny tattoo shops receive from DHEC.
“They do give you a rough time when it comes to licensing issues,” he said. “We are like a friendly business to the community and yet they give us the hardest time.”
If licensed artists have a common foe, it is the “scratchers” who continue to operate on an underground circuit, bypassing the rules and inking homemade tattoos on the cheap. In 2012, an Horry County man was indicted and accused of giving a 16-year-old girl a tattoo for $40. Another unlicensed artist was arrested two years earlier in Clover for allegedly inking underage teens without their parents' consent for $30 a pop.
In South Carolina, a person has to be at least 18 to get a tattoo, and most area shops charge between $100 and $150 per hour for their services.
While “scratching” is illegal, the tools of the trade are not, with cheap knock-off needles and inks sold freely at mall kiosks and stores around the state, licensed artists complain.
DHEC said state law does not prohibit these sales, and the agency has no regulatory authority over this merchandise. As for “scratchers,” DHEC gets fewer than 10 complaints annually about the practice, Beasley said.
Still, artists like Gafgen, of Roses & Ruin, said they see the results of amateur or inferior tattooers on a regular basis, as she and her colleagues often are called upon to fix the mess someone else made. “You can hurt people if you don't know what you're doing,” she said.
Tim Dennis opened the first tattoo shop in Charleston, Blu Gorilla Tattoo, in 2006 in the city's Neck Area. Dennis, who also owns Pepper Shade Tattoo a stone's throw away, is celebrating his 20th anniversary in the industry this year.
He got his start in New Orleans and, like a lot of artists, moved around the country a bit seeking better opportunities and “chasing the money.” Dennis still sees room for growth in Charleston but hopes it doesn't get oversaturated with shops, such as the Big Easy and San Diego, where he also worked. Too many shops can cut into individual earnings, driving good artists out of town, he said.
Dennis, who at 43 is quite the illustrated man himself, is pleased to see acceptance of the industry growing in the Palmetto State, that folks now understand tattoo artists and their clientele aren't the scourge some people made them out to be.
“I don't get the odd looks when I go in the grocery store anymore,” he said with a chuckle. “Hey. I'm a normal person. I just look different.”
Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com