Upstairs of a motorbike showroom in Manuel Reef, one of the artists at Steven Nguyen’s body art shop searched the internet for “best cancer tattoos for men.”
The tattoo he was planning was a commemoration for his client’s mother.
“I have about four of them,” said the client, who asked not to be named, while pointing at other ribbons on his arm. “This is going to be my 22nd tattoo altogether.”
The tattoo — which featured his mother’s middle name, Dolores — was to be inked on his neck.
It was designed by Mr. Nguyen, who sat with the tattoo artist in front of a computer and tweaked it until it looked perfect.
The first tattoo shop offered a selection of images in booklets that could be browsed. However, today, most customers can view digital versions.
Any design can be found online by the customer. The artist can then draw and color the idea with an illustrated program, as well as print the artwork onto sticky paper.
The artist will then trace the design and bring the needle to its body. This ensures accuracy.
Despite tattooing’s rapid evolution in recent years the legislation of the Virgin Islands hasn’t kept up with it. The practice is not regulated by the current legislation.
At least two tattoo studios offer body art in the region. The newest is Mr. Nguyen’s shop, Esme Body Art Studio, which opened in August.
After obtaining a trade permit, Mr. Nguyen was examined by the Environmental Health Division. In the absence of any tattoo-specific VI legislation he strictly follows safety and medical protocols as would be expected in other countries.
Stacy Mather stated that he had done the same when he opened Lion Ink Studio with his brother in 2015. However, he also has been pushing for regulations since years.
He proposed to the government a draft of safety legislation for tattooing and piercing long before he opened his shop, which was damaged by Hurricane Irma.
He was later told it had been “lost,” he said.
Mather claimed that the studio he owned was granted a license to trade and cleared to practice, similar as Mr. Nguyen.
He stated that the company also adhered to the American Piercing Association standards as well as other accreditation bodies.
Operation not subject to regulation
Mather stated that tattoos have been inked in this territory for many years without any regulations.
“People would migrate from other Caribbean countries, and they would come here and they would practice,” Mr. Mather said. “Back then, their sterilisation process for tattooing was pressure cookers with Clorox water and that kind of stuff. They were some of the most prominent in their country. [tattooing is] Regulations in place and [VI] it wasn’t regulated.”
He stated that tattoo artists now use professional equipment, including single-use needles.
He said regulation is necessary, however.
“If we don’t regulate it, we’re going to have more young people getting tattoos in homes, in corners, and they’re going to have bad experiences,” he said.
He explained that rules in regulated shops can deter bad choices.
“Any shop in the world has parameters,” Mr. Mather said. “For example, in St. Thomas, it’s illegal to tattoo below the wrist. It’s illegal to tattoo below Mr. Mather said that VI leaders are being “irresponsible” by not addressing the lack of regulations here.
“They don’t think it’s necessary right now, because they think if you go and you do something to your body, it’s your own risk,” he said.
The Ministry of Health and Social Development didn’t respond to requests for comment.
All walks of Life
Tattoos can be done for many different reasons. Mr. Nguyen’s client described tattooing as “stress relief.”
To Mr. Mather tattooing is an expression of his personal story. “Part of body art for me is showing a part of myself that I don’t normally show,” he said. “For some of us, it’s a ritual.”
Mather pointed out that Mather and his brother had tattooed people of all walks, even lawyers and doctors.
“The derogatory connotation of a person who had tattoos was a drunken sailor. We’ve passed that. I think sometimes we live in a bubble and we don’t realise it in the [VI],” Mr. Mather said. “In the [VI] we believe that if you have tattoos you won’t get a job. The rest of the world doesn’t believe that anymore.”