Judge throws out 38-year ban on Massachusetts tattoo artists

-- THE STATE BANNED tattooing for health reasons, but that ban was challenged and overturned. Now anyone, even amateur `scratchers,' can legally make their mark. 

WORCESTER, Mass.--It feels like His-and-Hers Day here at the body-art salon Miraculous Creations. Maureen Pugliese is having a winged pattern etched across her belly, while her husband psyches himself up for a tribal tattoo that will take more than 40 hours and envelop his entire back.

The Worcester couple used to travel to Maine, where salon owners Steven "Buzz" and Rose Pulda have another shop and tattooing was legal. But that's no longer necessary. Last week, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge struck down the state's 38-year-old tattooing ban, finding it violated First Amendment free-speech rights.

Now, hundreds of artists are surfacing from a vibrant underground and returning from out of state to openly imprint skulls and crossbones, flowers and crosses, cartoon figures and Chinese symbols on eager customers.

"It's awesome," said Buzz Pulda, a mural of 75 tattoos whose gloved hands wielded a droning needle to the pounding chords of Jimi Hendrix. "I don't have to look over my shoulder anymore."

In the 1950s, hepatitis outbreaks and concern about unsanitary tattoo operations led to widespread bans. Massachusetts prohibited the tattooing of anyone younger than 18 before halting the practice outright in 1962, with a penalty of up to a year in jail or a $300 fine.

Only four other states now prohibit tattooing except by a health-care professional: South Carolina, Oklahoma, Florida and Connecticut.

After several failed legislative attempts to legalize tattooing in Massachusetts, two Martha's Vineyard residents, including a New York-licensed artist who wants to practice here, last year filed the civil suit, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Tattooing is a form of art," said attorney Harvey Schwartz. "It's on the skin rather than canvas, but it's still art."

Judge Barbara Rouse agreed in her ruling, noting that tattooing is an art form practiced for thousands of years in virtually every culture.

"Persons obtain tattoos to demonstrate commitment to other persons, to institutions, to religious beliefs, and to political and personal beliefs," Rouse held. "The medium on which the drawn image appears should not be relevant when determining whether something is `speech'; the tattoo itself is symbolic speech deserving of First Amendment protection.

"The current ban on tattooing has promoted an underground tattoo industry with no controls which, in turn, has increased health risks," she added.

The decision took immediate effect, leaving everyone from "scratchers," or amateurs, to licensed tattooers free to operate without restriction. The state Department of Public Health last week requested a 90-day stay while it hammers out emergency guidelines. Health officials plan to issue regulations on such issues as sterilization, single-use needles and practitioner training.

As soon as news broke of the ban being lifted, the Puldas rented a truck in Maine and sped their tattooing equipment here. In Boston, Sundy Noonan said her husband, Patrick, plans to quit his job as a chef to tattoo full time. The couple had been working illegally in their industrial-sized loft with visiting artists.

"This is a whole new gig. We get to own our own business. ... We can actually support ourselves off it," said Noonan, 28, whose tattooed tribute to her grandparents--their names and tombstone embellished with flowers and candy hearts--wraps around her waist and back. "Now we're all going to make a lot of money."

Others are more cautious. At the piercing salon Body Xtremes in Quincy, just south of Boston, Mik Miller will wait until city and state regulations are issued.

"As much as I wanted tattooing to be legal, I wanted it to become legal the right way," said Miller, whose face is traversed by spiders and scorpions. "I am deathly afraid there is going to be an outbreak of hepatitis from the scratchers out there, and I honestly think that if there is an outbreak, they will just ban it again."

Rich Mackin, 28, an advertising copywriter, bills himself as the first person here in years to get a legal tattoo, but he knows all about the other kind. Boston art-school friends drew most of his dozen tattoos, and trust is important for a guy who has the Chinese characters for "garlic vegetables with rice" and a men's-room symbol inscribed on his body.

"I'm definitely at a point right now where it's not how many more," he said, "but how much coverage."