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Tattoo artist anger over new EU rules goes beyond skin deep

FILE - A man, wearing a protective face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus, is tattooed at Paul and Friends tattoo parlour in downtown Brussels, March 26, 2021.

Tattoo parlors say their art will lose a lot of its vibrancy after European Union rules banning thousands of chemicals in their coloring ink kick in on Wednesday. The 27-nation bloc answers back that public health will be much better served with tougher restrictions on elements in ink that may cause cancer or allergies.

The standoff between regulation and freedom of artistic expression has triggered a torrent of complaints and accusations.

In Amsterdam, Tycho Veldhoen has plied his trade for a quarter century and fears an “enormous impact” on his work once certain colors are banned. “Because, like a painter, you suddenly lose a gigantic part of your palette” with no alternatives in sight.

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And he warned that it could even get worse next year when more inks currently in use could be banned. Tattoo shops in the 27-nation bloc have had a rough two years since COVID-19 hit with restrictions and lockdowns. Now they say a perfectly avoidable crisis is hitting them even harder.

“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 Dec. 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.

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The Commission says alternatives to the banned products do exist but tattoo parlors say they’re too slow to make their way from the manufacturers to their shops.

Angelo Bedani of Brussels’ Boucherie Moderne tattoo parlor said he had nothing to prepare with since the new inks had only become available a week ago. On top of that “a bottle costs double compared to the one we have today.”

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.

The EU’s chemical agency ECHA says that allergic and inflammatory skin reactions “are expected to decrease thanks to the restriction.” It adds that “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.”

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Michl Dirks, who is behind a “Save the Pigments” petition which has already collected 176,000 signatures in the EU objects to such conditional phrasing and insists the ban is not sufficiently backed by science, something which the EU disputes.

Erich Maehnert, co-organizer of the petition, 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.

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

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