Kentucky’s Proposal To Ban Tattooing Over Scars Draws Criticism

May 10, 2019

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A proposal by Kentucky health officials to ban tattooing over scars is drawing criticism from some doctors and tattoo artists.

As currently written, the proposal simply states that tattooing of scarred skin would be prohibited in Kentucky. The proposal does not include a reason behind the proposed ban.

In an emailed statement, Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokesman Doug Hogan didn’t give a specific reason behind the change, only saying that the rules haven’t been updated for many years.

“Regulations in this area have not been updated for about 15 years,” Hogan wrote. “Public comments are being accepted through the end of May. DPH will review and analyze all comments and then determine what changes, if any, need to be made to the regulations.”

David Levine, a researcher and doctor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, said he doesn’t know of any medical research that would warrant a ban on tattooing over scars. He also said the proposal as written is too broad.

“I think probably the issue is that it’s a blanket statement, and it probably should have been more specific to the reason that the skin was scarred in the first place,” Levine said. “There are people that are using cosmetic tattooing to actually reduce the appearance of scars.

The only type of scar Levine said that artists should be concerned with tattooing over is called a keloid, a raised scar that spreads across the skin. They usually pop up where skin has been burned, cut or scraped. According to the American Academy of Dermatology,  these scars are more common among African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

“If you have a history of having any kind of keloid scarring, then putting the tattoo anywhere on the body would likely lead to more keloid scarring,” Levine said.

Mike Martin is president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists. Martin said the industry has rules in place about tattooing over scars. He said as long as the scar isn’t fresh, there’s really no problem.

“It’s not an issue if a person comes into the shop and wants to get their scar covered up because it’s embarrassing and the scar’s well-healed, and been healed for years,” Martin said. “Our rule of thumb is a year, and then look at them and make a determination.”

Buddy Wheeler, the owner of Tattoo Charlie’s in Louisville and Lexington, said many people get tattooed over scars for symbolic reasons — some very personal. 

“We do a lot of tattoos for people who have self-harm scars to cover those up. We do a lot of tattoos for people who have had some sort of surgery to cover those [scars] and disguise those,” he said.

Wheeler said that includes tattoos for cancer survivors who want to cover mastectomy scars.

As written, the state’s proposal would also impact people who want to get tattoos touched up or covered up.

“A tattoo itself is creating a scar — so if you take away the ability to tattoo over scars, you’re taking away the ability to do any coverups, any rework, anything like that,” Wheeler said.

Martin said he’s never heard of a state proposing a ban on tattooing over scars. He also said it’s possible the ban could infringe on people’s rights.

“It’s person’s body, it’s their scar, you know?” Martin said. “Can they really tell people they can’t do that to themselves? And how would they even regulate that or enforce a law on that?”

Public comments on the proposal are being accepted through the end of May. Comments can be emailed to: CHFSregs@ky.gov.

A public hearing on the measure is scheduled for May 28 in Frankfort.