On The Fringe

Alternative Businesses Embrace Regulation and Scrutiny to Gain Legitimacy

By Heather Stewart | Photography by Jac Scott

June 6, 2013

Rules, regulations, red tape—the things every business owner loves to hate. But some businesses, in some industries, have found that embracing regulations and public scrutiny is the surest path to legitimacy.

In past years, many of these businesses—tattoo parlors, smoke shops, lingerie and adult stores—would have been relegated to red-light districts, kept on the fringes of the community.

In some ways, that is still the case. Local and state zoning ordinances attempt to keep “alternative” establishments far away from residential areas and community spaces. Nevertheless, these red-light industries have gained a toehold of acceptance within the mainstream, often through a vigorous and voluntary adoption of regulations.

Skin Deep

When Curt Warren opened Koi Piercing 16 years ago, he says the local health department did not regulate piercing establishments at all.

Warren learned his craft in San Francisco; when he moved to Utah, he was surprised at the lack of local oversight or professional standards. Piercing comes with a real risk of infection or other complications—or the procedure can be entirely botched. In fact, he left a job with a piercing studio and launched Koi because “they didn’t take piercing as seriously as I did,” he says.

 In an effort to professionalize Utah’s piercing industry, Warren says he and another local piercing studio worked closely with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department to formulate procedures and regulations.

“They were just trying to understand what we do and what equipment we use,” he says.

These days, the Salt Lake Health Department inspects body art studios—which encompass both tattoo shops and piercing studios—each year. And the inspectors come with an extensive checklist. They examine the equipment and equipment testing records, methods for cleaning and disposing of blood-stained materials, and required signage, among many, many other things.

But inspectors don’t often find problems. “These are some of the best-run facilities we work with,” says Kerry Cramer, supervisor at the Salt Lake Health Department. “They regulate themselves pretty well.”

There’s a simple reason for that, he says. “They know that if there is a complaint or problem, it affects the whole industry—how it is perceived.”

In fact, two years ago several piercers in Davis County approached the county with a request to tighten up the regulations there. According to Lewis Garrett, director of health for the Davis County Health Department, the piercers were concerned about fly-by-night shops performing unsafe procedures—and giving the whole industry a black eye.

“I found that interesting,” he says. “It’s very rare when an industry comes to you and wants more regulation.”

Susie Miller, proprietor of Susie M’s Gallery of Fine Tattooing, had an experience similar to Warren’s. She and her husband, Kelly Miller, opened their shop on 1300 South and State Street in 1991. “When we just moved here, there were only just two other tattoo shops in the valley. We had to educate [the health department] in procedures. They had no clue.”

Miller says she is more than happy to comply with regulations that keep her clients safe. But “now they’ve gone a little to the extreme. A little. OSHA standards are changing all the time…So far as telling me I have to have an orange trash bag [for disposing of bio-hazardous material].”

Body art studios can only open shop in certain areas, usually the most industrial sections of town. Over the years, the effect of this zoning has been to concentrate tattoo parlors in certain areas. State Street in downtown Salt Lake City is tattoo central, with dozens of shops lining both sides of the street.

This grouping is both a blessing and a curse, says Miller. All of the competitors are working elbow-to-elbow. But the concentration of tattoo shops brings foot traffic to them all. “They don’t even have to know your name,” she says. “They just have to know you’re on State Street.”

In other states, body art has become so mainstream that studios are opening up in malls. Miller doubts that will happen in Utah anytime soon due to “the old stigma of the trash people—bikers. That’s not true. A tattoo is a luxury item. You don’t need a tattoo—but you want it.” 

In fact, Miller doesn’t see much difference between her business and any other. “We’re in the service industry,” she says. “We do it no differently than anybody else in the service industry.”

Where There’s Smoke

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