Tattoo Artists Worried About Industry as EU Restricts Use of Some Chemicals in Colored Ink

Tattoo artists and the European Union are at odds due to new restrictions on certain chemicals used to color tattoo ink.

The European Chemical Agency set the restrictions due to health concerns. It said that besides stopping inflammatory and allergic reactions, "more serious effects such as cancer, harm to our DNA or the reproductive system potentially originating from chemicals used in the inks could also decrease" because of the restrictions.

However, tattoo artists across the 27-nation EU like Michl Dirks argue that there is not enough scientific evidence to back this up. Dirks and Erich Maehnert recently organized a petition called "Save the Pigments," which so far has garnered over 176,000 signatures.

Amsterdam tattoo artist Tycho Veldhoen said tattoo parlors are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and these restrictions could have an "enormous impact," because "like a painter, you suddenly lose a gigantic part of your palette" without alternative options.

While EU officials argue that these alternatives do exist, tattoo artists say they are expensive to buy and slow to arrive. Angelo Bedani, who works at Brussels' Boucherie Moderne tattoo parlor, said the new inks were only made available a week ago and "a bottle costs double compared to the one we have today."

tattoo parlor, Ireland, COVID-19
Tattoo artists across the European Union are criticizing a recent ban against chemicals found in common pigmented inks. Above, a tattoo artist works on a customer at the Heartbreak Social Club tattoo parlor in Dublin on December 1, 2020. Photo by Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

"It is all rather sudden," Veldhoen said. "There should have been a lot more preparation."

The EU begs to differ. The bloc says the consultation process began in 2016 while the official regulation heralding Wednesday's start of restrictions dates back to December 14, 2020.

"So this is not something which is either a surprise or a complete novelty. It is a sort of generalization of practice which is already existing in quite a few member states," said EU spokesman Eric Mamer. Seven EU nations already had national restrictions in place.

Considering that at least 12 percent of Europeans have tattoos, and double that number in the 18-35 age group, according to EU figures, strict health guidelines were necessary.

Dirks objects to such conditional phrasing and insists the ban is not sufficiently backed by science, something which the EU disputes.

Maehnert said such bans unduly hurt the industry since people will use illegal ways to get the products from third countries.

"They continue to obtain their tattooing products without any checks and without the possibility of tracing them," he said. Others say the small tattoo industry is easily targeted while the tobacco and alcohol industries still hold much more sway.

The petition pair is already preparing for the next battle. Up to now, pigments Blue 15 and Green 7 are still enjoying a grace period until next year because no alternatives are yet available.

Veldhoen said it leaves him with awful choices when a customer walks into his Amsterdam shop. "A rose with brown leaves is a lot less attractive than a rose with green leaves," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report