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On pins and needles defending artistic expression

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  April 8, 2010 03:48 PM

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Stroll down any Massachusetts street on a sunny day and you are will see a lot of bare skin adorned with some nifty (and some not-so-nice) tattoos.

Once the emblem of American GI's and Japanese yakuzas, tattoos have become ubiquitous among the under-30 crowd. It's the rare person who hasn't fallen under the spell of the needle and dye. Even the trend-setting Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston is opening an exhibit next week featuring Mexican tattoo artist, Dr. Lakra.

But did you know that tattooing was recently illegal in Massachusetts and many other states? It's true. It took a lawsuit by the ACLU in 2000 to strike down restrictions on tattoo artists in Massachusetts, thus ensuring that this ancient form of self-expression is no longer criminalized in our Commonwealth.

On April 15 at 7 p.m., the ICA will feature a conversation about the case with ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch, who was co-counsel with Harvey Schwartz in litigating the challenge to the Massachusetts law banning tattooing.

To some people, such legal victories seem only skin deep. But on closer examination, the right to tattoo is part and parcel of our right to artistic expression.

The art of "body art" goes back literally thousands of years. Tattooed mummies have been found in all parts of the world, including Egypt, Libya, Asia and South America. A five thousand year old man, nick-named "otzi the ice man" by the people who dug him up, reportedly bore 57 tattoos -- although they may have simply been scars from arthritis (apparently it can be hard to tell the difference after 5,000 years).

The first tattoo shop in New York was set up in 1846 and came to Boston soon thereafter. Soldiers from both sides in the civil war revived the ancient tradition of wearing tattoos as a sign of military prowess. Today, surveys show that more than one-third of Americans under age 30 have tattoos, and the numbers are growing.

Despite the historical persistence of tattooing, however, the law on tattooing as free expression isn't a slam-dunk. States have some right to ensure the sanitary operation of tattoo parlors and courts are still sorting out the hard cases, such as whether employers can require employees to cover tattoos. But our nation nonetheless has made progress in defense of tattooing as a fundamental form of artistic expression. Even South Carolina and Oklahoma -- two hold-out states -- recently passed laws legalizing tattooing as skin art.

Personally, I am content to let the Mother Nature etch her motif into my tender hide without additional help from dye and needles. But even I can't resist the fascination with tattooing as an ancient and compelling form of human expression. As the ICA enticement for its upcoming show attests: "From cave walls to touch screens, no surface is off limits to the creativity of artists and designers. What about the most accessible surface of all, our own bodies?"

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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