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How to Get a Tattoo License

by Taylor

The intricate process of tattoo application has been around for literally thousands of years, and first came to the western world at the latter end of the 19th century. Especially early in its history in America, the tattoo industry held the reputation of being a business full of mystery and rebellion with hardly any rules or regulations to speak of. And it’s true: during and after WWII, when the industry began to gain fame and some of the most well-known tattoo legends were discovered, there were very few rules governing tattoo artists and their shops, leading to many shut-downs and a temporary all-out ban in some states (New York, for example) until it could be properly regulated.

A lot has happened since then, including increased knowledge about the spread of HIV and other illnesses in the 1980’s, and the expansion of federal regulation as it applies to small businesses. Today, tattoo shops are regulated by OSHA standards (the same that are practiced in nursing and dental facilities) and many states across the U.S. require the possession of a tattoo license to work. Due to these heightened regulations, learning how to get a tattoo license has become common practice for all aspiring tattoo artists.

Is Getting a Tattoo License Required?
It’s important to note that the businesses that hire tattoo artists are actually more closely regulated than the artists themselves, and they are subject to annual examinations by their local county Health Department to make sure that the operation is being run safely. For businesses, tattoo licenses are mandatory.

While tattoo businesses are required to be licensed, the same doesn’t always hold true for individual tattoo artists (though it is a misdemeanor crime to not have one in some states, like California). In fact, some states or counties don’t even offer individual tattoo licenses, and simply require all businesses where tattoos are conducted to be inspected and licensed. Having this said, however, the fact remains that having licensed employees in states that offer it certainly adds a bit more professionalism to the image of a company, and clients usually have more confidence when they know that a tattoo shop licensed as well as each of its employees.

The tattoo licensing process functions on a county-based level, and as such, obtaining one can vary greatly even within state lines. For instance, the state of Wisconsin does require every county to accept only licensed tattoo artists, but the application for this license only requires that an individual apply for the license and send in a fee amount. In Denver County in Colorado, applicants are required to submit proof of Bloodborne Pathogens certification along with their fee, while neighboring Jefferson County doesn’t require a tattoo license at all, only that the shop where an artists works practice OSHA standards and pass the annual inspection. In still other counties, a CPR certification is also needed to obtain a tattoo license in addition to all of the above.

Despite these differences, there are a few commonalities that exists within all counties in order to have a tattoo license.

What Tattoo Certifications Will I Need?
While success in the tattoo industry is based on skill, there is actually no requirement to prove oneself as a talented artist or stellar business owner in order to obtain a license. Instead, certification is mostly focused on compliance with standard safety measures to protect potential customers.

The Bloodborne Pathogens training course is a common prerequisite that nearly all states require in order to obtain a tattoo license. It must be offered by a legitimate organization that provides certification, such as the American Red Cross Association. It costs about $25 to take the class and get the certificate, which it is valid for one year before it must be renewed for the same price. The course can either be taken on-site at your place of business by a licensed course provider (preferred if an entire shop full of employees needs to take or renew their course at the same time), or you can take the course online. At the end of the course, you’ll be required to take a test. If you pass with an 80% or above, you’re certified!

Bloodborne Pathogens training covers topics that are important in the tattoo industry in order for you and your client to be safe, such as:

  • cross-contamination of clean supplies with ones that have been contaminated with blood, ink, or other dangerous fluids
  • proper use of non-porous barriers on equipment
  • proper hand-washing techniques
  • review of blood borne illnesses that are a concern within the tattoo community
  • etc.

Even if your county doesn’t require this training, it’s a vital asset to have simply to make sure you aren’t putting yourself or your clients at risk.

How Much Does Tattoo Licensing Cost?
In the states that offer them, there is a fee for tattoo licensing for both tattoo shops and individual artists. Generally, because licenses are given out by the state, the fees are the same for all counties, only depending on whether the license is for an individual or a business. For tattoo establishments, the nonrefundable fee can generally be expected to be about $1,000, with an additional fee if the shop also performs piercings.

Unlike the individual tattoo license, the fee to run a tattoo establishment is non-negotiable. For individuals, the fee can range from as low as $25 (California), to $100 (New York), or even up to $250 in many other states (Washington and Oklahoma, for instance). These are normally legitimate for a period of between one and three years before the license will need to be renewed, typically for a lower cost than the original fee in areas with higher fees.

Because there is such a huge variation in the level of regulation in regards to obtaining a tattoo license, things can get confusing. It is very important that if you’re interested in getting one, that you check the requirements and fees for your county. Go to your state’s website, and it’ll help you find which office you’ll need to go to in order to apply for the licenses offered in your state.

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