Ink Stand

Fairview Heights tries to protect its young women from the evil lurking in tattoo and body-piercing shops. It's time for a reality check.

Jun 27, 2001 at 4:00 am
Fourteen-year-old Jamie Pagano died five months ago, but a strikingly flawless replica of her face -- brown hair, round cheeks and beaming smile -- is permanently etched on her father's right shoulder. And there Mike Pagano was last week, back at the Ink Well tattoo parlor in Fairview Heights, to add more artwork to his body to remind him of his daughter. "Now she's with me all the time," says Pagano, 44. "When I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror, and I see her."

So does Pagano's wife, Linda Pagano. "She loves it," he says. "She touches it and cries."

Clark Medley, owner of the Ink Well, created Jamie's image on her dad's shoulder. Medley used a tattoo needle on Mike Pagano's skin for three hours, working from a school picture of Jamie, while his wife watched. "It was one of the hardest tattoos I have ever had to do," Medley says. "They were both crying as I was doing it."

Medley himself has tattoos running up both forearms and biceps. He lifts his right arm to show his favorite -- a fire-red skull with a lit candle in its mouth -- in the underarm area. But Medley does images on more than just skin. He has used many mediums since childhood, and even now he gets together with his friend and shop manager, Don Will, on Wednesdays, when the two paint in oil on canvas.

Unlike artists who paint on paper or canvas, Medley believes, his work on skin poses more of a challenge. "Their canvases don't move or flinch," he says. "Their canvases don't pass out on them." Moreover, he says, the seven employees of the Ink Well are real artists, not "scribblers," kids who just doodled in class: "You work here for years before you touch a machine."

Medley, who started tattooing in 1994 at All American Tattoo in Florissant, paid his dues, saved money and opened the Ink Well five years ago. He hired Will, whom he had known for seven years at the time, as a managing tattoo artist. Today, the Ink Well, which is one of two tattoo and body-piercing businesses in Fairview Heights, does a brisk business at its location on Lincoln Trail. Over the years, at least 20,000 pieces have come out of their shop.

But now the Ink Well and Screamin' Demon Tattoo, the other shop, face a threat. It seems Fairview Heights doesn't want them around -- or, at least, some members of the City Council don't want them around.

The folks at City Hall are moving to preserve the decency of naïve 18-year-old girls being poked and diddled in their tender, not-yet-tainted private parts -- nipples, the pubic area -- by the lecherous hands of stinky, hairy tattoo "artists." They're concerned not just about pierced nipples or clitorises or penises but about, well, "sexual gratification" taking place at these shops.

And so an ordinance brewing in the City Council is up for discussion Thursday at a committee meeting. As proposed, the ordinance paints the owners and employees of tattoo and body-piercing shops as sexual predators and the shops' clients as unsuspecting prey in need of protection. The ordinance imposes several regulations: mandatory five-year background checks on all employees and a prohibition on working if they've been convicted of sexual or, oddly enough, gambling offenses; a minimum of $1 million in liability coverage on each employee; an increased age requirement for body piercing from 18 to 21; and a complete ban on piercing of "sexual areas," including the genitals and buttocks of both men and women and the nipples of women.

When the ordinance came up for consideration at the June 5 City Council meeting, the scene was set for a showdown. At the back of the small meeting room were a handful of the intended targets of the ordinance, among them Will, who sported a nose ring, a labret, a tongue ring, earlets and colorful tattoos running up both forearms and both calves. Up front were members of the media, pens and cameras at the ready to document any fireworks that might erupt. As it turned out, the council members chose to disappoint everyone and tabled the ordinance for further deliberation. The bill is set to be revised at the Law Enforcement and Public Protection Committee meeting on Thursday.

What prompted the ordinance? Ald. Dale Sauer, who heads the committee that drafted the ordinance, says the council realized it didn't have any regulations regarding the cleanliness, safety and licensing of tattoo and body-piercing shops, as some neighboring cities do. "This didn't come from complaints from the community," he says. "We just thought this was an area we should cover."

Lydia Cruez, another council member on the committee, has a different version. "Residents have been complaining to some of the elected officials," she says. "They just thought, 'Oh boy, on every street corner we're going to see [a tattoo parlor].'"

Ald. Richard Briddell says he has received complaints from residents as well. "I guess some people just don't particularly like the idea of tattooing," he says. They've given various reasons, he says, "none of which meant a whole lot, but it was something we had to look into."

Ald. Pat Baeske told the Belleville News-Democrat that the city is trying to prevent "undesirable-type places that might be involved with sexual gratification." She could not be reached to elaborate on her statement.

Mayor Gail Mitchell says he heard comments from residents who "just don't like the idea" of an 18-year-old girl getting pierced at one of these parlors. Rumors of youth under the age of 18 getting tattoos or piercings illegally have also landed on Mitchell's desk. "We know it's been going on," the mayor says of the unsubstantiated rumors. "We've got eyes and ears, and we hear stories."

"The entire ordinance is based probably one part around safety and three parts around trying to figure out a way that they can make everything so stringent that they would really make us leave, and if we didn't leave they would find a reason to shut us down," says Medley. "They're not stupid people -- they know what they're wanting to do, and they're trying everything they can to do it."

Will suspects that the "health and safety" concerns are a façade: "It doesn't seem like it was a health issue; it is more -- I hate to say it -- but it almost seems like a morality issue on all that stuff."

If the proposed ordinance is passed, the issue will become a financial one for the Ink Well, because other tattoo parlors in the St. Louis metro area will not be operating under such burdensome requirements as the $1 million liability coverage for employees. "There are about 13 shops in the immediate vicinity that don't have to go through this, and they can charge less than me," Medley says. "Who do you think customers are going to go to?"

As for the proposed provision increasing the minimum age for piercing to 21 from 18, Will says, "That's going to cut into a large portion of our business. Just taking a guess, that's 30 percent of our piercing, maybe even 40 percent." And yes, the Ink Well does have clients who want their "sexual areas" pierced -- about three each week, on average.

Amanda Mulligan, a tattoo artist for Screamin' Demon Tattoo, says she is simply responding to requests when she works on a client's genital area. "I just feel, if they want it, give it to them. It's their body," she says.

Medley believes City Council members just don't understand that a lot of people get tattoos as a way of proclaiming their feelings for a loved one, just as Mike Pagano did to express his love for his dear departed daughter. "They seem to have the image of what it was with the bikers and the crazy roadhouse days," Medley says.

Says Will: "We're just trying to do a job."