The Wages of Skin

David Ruffner figured his new tattoo would displease his dad, a conservative tax attorney with an office on Brickell Key Drive. So for six months the seventeen-year-old Palmetto High School senior endeavored to keep the oozing five-inch skull on his right shoulder blade a secret. It made no sense to rile his dad, and because father and son only saw each other during their weekly dinners together, David figured there was a good chance the tattoo would go unnoticed, at least until he graduated and left for college.

But Charles Ruffner surprised his son this past spring by barging unannounced into the house in Kendall where David lived with his mother, on a day when David was lounging around without a shirt.

"All hell broke loose," remembers Mary Ann Ruffner, Charles Ruffner's ex-wife.

Ruffner first tried to persuade his son to get the tattoo removed. "If he ever goes to a company picnic, people are going to think he's trash," frets the attorney, who likens the body ornament to a hideous disfigurement. "It's a skull dripping blood with green-and-yellow eyes. It's not going to stand him well in life."

When David stood his ground, his father turned to what he knows best: the law. It is against Florida law to tattoo anyone under the age of eighteen without parental consent, Charles Ruffner learned, and that's just what had happened to his son, who had gone with friends to Tattoos by Lou (9300 S. Dixie Hwy.), one of four Dade tattoo parlors operated by Lou Sciberras. "'You charged my son $150 for the tattoo; don't you think you should have asked for ID?'" Ruffner remembers fuming at Sciberras.

He says the tattoo maestro merely brushed off the incident, so he took it to the Dade State Attorney's Office. "On October 17, 1993, my seventeen-year-old son...was illegally mutilated by a tattoo artist," Ruffner wrote in a May 2 letter addressed to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "The tattoo parlor operates without supervision in derogation of the law, and in an unsanitary manner. Tattooing is well-known to promote the spread of both hepatitis and AIDS."

The attorney had done his homework -- at least some of it. Indeed, according to Florida law, tattoos must be applied by a licensed doctor or dentist or by someone under their supervision, and may be purchased by minors only with a parent's consent. But although tattoo parlors have long been stereotyped as festering fonts of contaminated blood, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta asserts that the danger of infection is negligible as long as the needles are sterilized.

Still, the twin bugaboos of tattooed teens and swarming microbes have dogged the tattoo industry nationwide. According to a study by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), only two states require tattoo licenses. Nine states have enacted official bans; twelve (including Florida) restrict the tattooing of minors. In addition, dozens of cities, including New York City, Virginia Beach, Key West, and Daytona Beach, have outlawed tattooing, either by passing explicit local statutes or by zoning tattoo parlors out of existence. Yet enforcement of the tattoo laws appears to be haphazard at best.

In response to questions from the department, a regulator from Oklahoma, where tattooing is banned entirely, wrote: "In my investigation of this question I found few people who knew anything about a law pertaining to tattooing."

An official from North Carolina, which restricts the tattooing of minors, replied that he had contacted local police and found no records of arrests for violations of the tattoo laws. "Tattooing is either not being practiced, indicating that the law is effective, or it is not being stringently enforced, indicating that the law is ineffective," the official wrote diplomatically.

"It is our belief that it would be impossible to regulate tattoo parlors and that it would be a mistake to give tattoo artists the dignity of being registered," a regulator from Pennsylvania concluded, explaining the absence of tattoo laws in the Keystone State.

A June 24 DBPR memo elucidates loopholes in Florida's tattoo statute, which was first passed in 1959 in a slightly different form. Among them: Doctors who supposedly monitor tattoo parlors to prevent infection frequently reside in other states and do not maintain a Florida medical license. Also, the ever-more popular practice of body piercing, which is often done at tattoo parlors (including those owned by Lou Sciberras), is completely unregulated.

So while underage teens are theoretically prohibited from getting tattooed willy-nilly, nothing stands in the way of pubescent piercings.

Anne Washburn, student-life editor of the Palmetto High School yearbook, confirms that both practices have been embraced by students at Palmetto. This year, while the faculty at Palmetto, one of the most affluent high schools in Dade, boasted about an unprecedented five recipients of the prestigious Silver Knight Award for academic excellence, students pointed equally proudly to their new tattoos and to the rings they'd poked through eyebrows, tongues, nipples, elbows, and genitals.

"Anywhere you can get enough skin to fit around the edge of a needle, it'll get pierced," reports Washburn, who is neither tattooed nor excessively pierced. "It's all promoted by MTV and other TV shows. It's about being underground, living on the streets, being cool and dangerous."

Marm Harris, executive director of the Florida Board of Medicine (until recently a division of the DBPR), says a discussion of tattoo and body-piercing regulations is on the agenda of the board's annual planning meeting this month. "The reason the board is concerned is because these are invasive techniques," explains Harris. "Any time you invade the skin, you risk infection."

Spurred by a call "from an irate mother whose minor son had developed an infection after having his scrotum pierced," a DBPR attorney recently sent Harris a memo containing information about the "care and cleaning of your new piercing."

"It is normal for all new piercings to secrete dead cells and lymph during the healing process," the memo explains. "When this hardens, however, it is necessary to remove it before rotating the ring. Some areas of the body will secrete more lymph and dead cells than others; nipples tend to produce more than most female genital piercings. In any case, these dead cells are best removed in the shower, where the stream of water can gently remove them."

By contrast, Charles Ruffner's complaint might seem nitpicky. But the State Attorney's Office turned over the case to Metro-Dade police. In the course of her investigation, Det. Paula Berris determined that Lou's tattooist had asked David if he was eighteen but did not examine his ID. The detective says that because the offense is only a second-degree misdemeanor and police officers were not present when the incident occurred, the state attorney will have to decide whether to make arrests. No such action has been taken.

Lou Sciberras refuses to discuss the tattoo. But he says his parlors operate under the supervision of a physician, and adds that all the tattooists in his employ abide by state laws.

David Ruffner, who late last month moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida, describes his dad's reaction as "ridiculous" and says he hopes the matter will fade away. "I expected it from him; it's typical," David says. "But the way he handled it is completely wrong."

Mary Ann Ruffner has adopted a neutral approach. "David's had crazy hair, he's had nine earrings, and those are gone," she points out. "Some girl will come along in his life and be appalled by the tattoo and that'll be the end of it.


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