WASHINGTON – You run a fashionable restaurant with a dress code for employees and customers that discourages pierced tongues and noses.

You are a personnel director at an upscale department store known for customer service and refuse to hire women with prominent tattoos.

You supervise a supermarket and require those with pierced body parts who handle food to remove the piercings before reporting to work.

According to legal experts in employment law, if you fit any of these categories, you are setting yourself up for lawsuits from members of a new activist lobby representing the ever-growing population of those into “body modification.”

“Employers are getting involved in expensive legal battles as they attempt to adapt to the ever-changing workforce,” said David Barron, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall, P.C. “Long-accepted rules are now being challenged and questioned in court.”

The firm cited one of the nation’s largest wholesale clubs that was recently sued by a member of “the Church of Body Modification,” who complained that she should not be required to remove a facial piercing.

“The employer required that all food handlers remove any such piercings for both sanitation reasons and to reflect an appropriate appearance for customers,” said Barron. “This time, the company prevailed in the action, but employers in a non-food handling workplace might not be so lucky.”

Laws prohibiting discrimination based on appearance and behavior of this sort already have been passed in several cities in California, and restrictions against tattoos and piercing are breaking down all over the country as the trend becomes a craze among young people.


In fact, 49 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 have tattoos, according to a 2004 Harris Poll. A study recently published in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology indicated 24 percent of people ages 18 to 50 have at least one tattoo. The study, based on a survey of 500 people in the United States, noted tattoos in past years “became associated with marginalized groups, signaling time spent in jail, punk status, membership in a motorcycle gang or a traveling circus.” But now, it said, tattoos “have become increasingly eclectic, and the practice has become mainstream.”

There are even children’s books like “Mommy Has a Tattoo” and the “Tattoo Coloring Book.” The topic of tattoos and body piercing is one of the hottest for campus speakers. Major corporations are working the “hip” new trend into their TV commercials and ad campaigns. And as tattoos and piercings become more common, some zealots are moving to extremes once unthinkable.

Just as “Heather Has Two Mommies” is now required reading for kindergartners in some school districts, how long will it be before the tolerance police mandate Phil Padwe’s new books. He’s the author and illustrator of the two new children’s books on tattoos.

In “Mommy Has a Tattoo,” a little boy, James, is afraid of a heavily tattooed neighbor – until he realizes his mother has one, too.

“I wanted to keep it simple,” says Padwe, who is not even sure how many tattoos he has but figures it’s somewhere between 25 and 30. “I didn’t want to get into really heavy questions or pass judgments. It’s about teaching tattoo tolerance.”

Tattoos are the rage even among young teen-agers. They are becoming so common that many parents are allowing their children to make what are, in effect, lifelong decisions about indelible, permanent “body art.”

Children – both boys and girls – are staining their bodies with the permanent ink for no better reason than “everybody is doing it” or “I thought the picture was cool.” It’s not just an urban thing any more, either.


Jon Smith, a senior at Conneaut Lake High School in Meadville, Pa., has a medium-sized tattoo of a wizard on his back. He got it last March because he just “wanted one.” Wizards have no particular significance for Smith, who picked the image from a tattoo parlor book full of various designs.

“I just liked the wizard (picture),” Smith told the local paper. He had it placed on his back with the idea of adding more tattoos later.

Lindsey Galbo, 16, of Saegertown, Pa., not only got her parents permission to get a red star tattooed on her upper back, she took her father with her.

“When I got mine I didn’t get it for any particular reason,” she said. “It was my birthday. Something I can think back when I’m older – my dad took me to get my first tattoo.”

Meanwhile, in colleges across the country, student programming boards are finding a big demand for tattoo artists to speak on campus. At Mills College in Oakland, Calif., earlier this month, Don Ed Hardy, an “internationally-acclaimed” tattoo artist, delivered a speech to a large and appreciative audience.

The tattoo taboo is definitely breaking down. One of the last states to outlaw tattooing – Oklahoma – has repealed the prohibition effective Nov. 1. In Illinois, a new law will end a prohibition on the donation of blood by those who are tattooed or pierced.

“My clientele has changed completely,” said Mace Arnold, who owns Body Art in Overland Park, Mo. “Now, everybody gets tattoos. Bankers, lawyers, doctors, everybody.”

Television shows are helping to make the trend more popular. One is called “Miami Ink” on TLC, the other is “Inked” on A&E.

“Every other person who walks through the door asks if we watch those shows,” explains Mike Paquette, owner of Aftershock Tattoo in Olathe, Kan.

Madison Avenue is catching on to what’s hot, too. Jeep’s advertising campaign for the 2007 Wrangler will meld traditional and new media – including a hookup with the tattoo-parlor reality TV show “Miami Ink.”

“Wrangler will be integrated” into the show, says Eileen Wunderlich, a Chrysler group spokeswoman. A Wrangler Unlimited will be decorated by the show’s artists and appear in three episodes this fall, she says.

The partnership also includes Jeep sponsorship of the show’s podcast, a sweepstakes and an online “Tattoo Your Own Wrangler” promotion. The Wrangler’s target buyer is 25 to 35 years old. The Unlimited’s target buyer is 30 to 40 years old.

But still some recognize there are plenty of downsides to tattoos and piercings – messages they’re not sure kids are hearing before making the permanent decision.

Dr. Betty Ann Lowe, an Arkansas pediatrician, past medical director of Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, points out a few of the hazards:

 

  • Tattoos are expensive and painful.

     

  • Removal is not impossible, but it is expensive, painful and very time consuming. It is certain that the skin will never be the same.

     

  • What is considered “in” today may turn out to be embarrassing later.

     

  • Disease can be transmitted through unclean needles.

     

  • Infection of the skin under the tattoo can be severe and sometimes disfiguring.

“Body piercing is not safe,” she said. “Dermatologists object to all forms of body piercing, with the exception of the ear lobes, and dentists oppose oral piercing to the point of calling it a public health hazard.”

She says health complications associated with body piercing include prolonged bleeding, scarring, tetanus, abscesses, boils and chronic infections such as halitosis (bad breath ) from tongue rings.

“Infection of Hepatitis B and C also are a threat, with no effective cure,” she adds. “Any time permanent holes are made in the lips, nose and eyebrows, they are not easy to repair. Ear piercing of the cartilage of the upper ear is frequently associated with prolonged infection and occasionally permanent disfigurement. Studs and rings can catch in clothes, and can cause large tears in the skin, lip, tongue, etc.”

She’s not alone. In Israel, where the tattoo phenomenon is less advanced, the Knesset Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee has set down regulations that will force parlors to warn customers of the dangers.

In 60 days, the new regulations – approved by the committee on Monday – will require piercing and tattoo parlors to post signs at the entrance with warnings that these procedures are “not medically desirable. They are liable to result in pain, infections, scars, disruptions in body functioning and other medical problems such as allergic reactions. They must not be performed on people who suffer from chronic illness, especially those with heart valve problems, and pregnant women.”

A new study conducted by U.S. researchers has shown that tattoos make skin slightly less sensitive to touch, as the process through which they are made may disrupt the nerve signals in the skin.

Todd Allen at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, conducted an experiment on 54 people, out of which 30 had tattoos. The skin sensitivity was revealed using an aesthesiometer, a common scientific device consisting of two adjacent plastic points that can be moved further apart.

He tested participants’ reaction to the aesthesiometer on five body parts – the lower back, the back of the calf muscle, the inner forearm, the tip of the index finger and a cheek.

Allen found that there was no difference between the sensitivity of the unmarked body parts of tattooed participants, and those of their “uninked” counterparts but that the corresponding marked regions of the tattooed subjects were less slightly sensitive to touch than the tattoo-free areas.

In Boston this week, a mother whose teenage daughter nearly died from an infection caused by a bellybutton piercing was convicted of endangering the girl’s life by failing to seek medical attention until she was gravely ill. Deborah Robinson, 39, could get up to five years in prison.

The girl developed an infection after piercing her own navel and inserting a ring. Prosecutors said Robinson watched for several weeks as her 13-year-old daughter dropped from 115 pounds to 75 pounds, became incontinent and grew so weak that she could not get off the couch.

The girl suffered extensive organ damage from an infection that ravaged her body. For nearly a week, doctors were unsure whether she would survive. But after a series of operations and weeks of rehabilitation, she made a full recovery.

In Chicago, a teenager reported to doctors that she felt stabbing pains in her face – like electrical shocks that lasted 10 to 30 seconds and struck 20 to 30 times a day. Her doctors diagnosed trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve disorder sometimes called “suicide disease” because of the excruciating and dispiriting pain it causes.

All symptoms ceased two days after the girl removed the metal stud from her pierced tongue.

In the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the account is used to illustrate the complications, some life-threatening, linked to body piercing. Other problems include tetanus, heart infections, brain abscess, chipped teeth and receding gums. One woman developed so much scar tissue that it resembled what she called a “second tongue.”

The tongue is “a particularly dangerous place to pierce” because it is rich in blood vessels that can spread infection to major organs and because it is near important nerves and the upper airway, said Dr. Marcelo Galarza, a neurosurgeon at Villa Maria Cecilia Hospital in Ravenna, Italy, who reported the case to the journal.

Even the dangerous tongue-piercing isn’t cutting edge enough for some body modification extremists.

Take Allen Falkner’, for example. His tongue is split down the middle, and when he sticks it out, it looks like a two-pronged snake tongue.

Extreme body modification features a wide range of alterations. Some people get horns implanted on their heads. Some install magnets in their hands. Others remold their ears to make them pointy.

For those who already regret their earlier decisions to tattoo themselves, there is some good news on the horizon.

A company called Freedom 2 claims to have invented a tattoo dye – removable in a single laser treatment. And they say the ink is safer, made of filler material used in cement by orthopedic surgeons and less likely to cause allergic reaction. The laser destroys the tattoo ink using much less energy than a conventional tattoo requires.

But tattoo critics believe “less permanent” stains might make it even easier for people to make the body modification choice.


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