Last month, a 10-year-old boy walked into the nurse’s office of his elementary school in Highland, New York, and asked for some Vaseline. He wanted to rub it onto his new tattoo — a crude rendering of his name in large block letters on the inside of his forearm.
The nurse called police.
The boy had gotten the tattoo with his mother’s permission from a neighbor, according to local authorities. While some states have no minimum age for receiving a tattoo if a parent allows it, New York state forbids anyone younger than 18 from getting tattooed with or without parental consent. Last month, both the tattoo artist, Austin Smith, 20, who was unlicensed, and the boy’s mother, Crystal Thomas, 33, were arrested, as pictures of the boy’s arm stirred outrage across local and international news sites and social media.
Yet, as societal mores around tattooing shift — nearly half of all millennials have tattoos, compared with only 13% of the boomer generation, according to a 2015 survey by the Harris Poll — there is a wide spectrum of responses to tattoos on young people. There is no federal minimum age for tattoos, and state laws vary widely. Some mirror New York’s strict over-18 rules. Some permit tattooing with parental consent for people as young as 14 years old. About a dozen, including Ohio, West Virginia and Vermont, allow it with parental blessing and do not specify any minimum age.
It is a situation that Dr. Cora Bruener, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Washington Medical Center’s Seattle Children’s Hospital, and author of guidance on tattoos for pediatricians, issued by the American Academy of Pediatric Medicine, finds troubling.
“It is a permanent mark or a symbol you are putting on your body, and I don’t think kids under 18 have that kind of agency to make a decision,” Bruener said. “We need to look at these laws again.”
The current landscape means that the episode in New York was not unique:
• In Ohio, a woman named Nikki J. Dickinson posted a video that went viral of her holding her 10-year-old son while he received an at-home tattoo in 2018. She said she had “tired” of the boy begging for one, according to ABC News. (Although Ohio has no minimum age with parental consent, Dickinson was charged with endangering her child, because of unsanitary conditions. She pleaded guilty, according to local reports, and was sentenced to community service.)
• In North Carolina, an over-18 state, a mother was charged with child endangerment after she tattooed a heart on her 11-year-old daughter’s right shoulder in 2012, according to a local news station. “She asked me to do it,” she said.
• Two years earlier, a Georgia couple was arrested after they tattooed crosses on six of their children, ages 10 to 17, just like their own tattoos. State law there limits tattoos to people 18 and older. “I’m their mother,” Patty Jo Marsh told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “Shouldn’t I be able to decide if they get one?” The charges against the couple were dropped, according to court records. Marisa Kakoulas, a lawyer based in New York City who has written a series of books on tattoos and consults with artists on tattoo law, noted that the issues surrounding minors and tattoos are likely to draw increased attention as tattoos shift increasingly from the counterculture to the mainstream. Indeed, the New York boy said he was inspired to get his forearm tattoo because a beloved teacher had one in the same place.
“It seems the gut reaction should be, ‘No, minors should not get tattoos,’ but minors will get tattoos,” Kakoulas said. Some parents, she said, may not even know they are breaking the law in certain states when they give their consent to their children’s tattoos.
That was the case when Chuntera Napier’s 10-year-old son, Gaquan, came to her with what she felt was a poignant request: He wanted to get a tattooed memento of his older brother, Shuntraveious Malik, known as Malik.
In 2010, Malik, 12, had been killed in a car accident while playing with Gaquan outside their home in Macon, Georgia. The seventh grader was a star basketball player at Ballard Hudson Middle School who taught his siblings their multiplication tables with mathematical sports games he made up, his mother said.
Shortly after Malik’s death, Gaquan asked for a 3 on his arm – the number from his brother’s basketball jersey. His mother agreed.
When teachers at Gaquan’s elementary school saw the tattoo, Napier was reported to police – it is illegal in Georgia for anyone younger than 18 to receive a tattoo. Napier pleaded guilty to tattooing a minor and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation, according to court records.
Gaquan Napier is now 24 years old, and Chuntera Napier still feels she did nothing wrong – rather, she believes it was unjust that her effort to honor her youngest son’s request, which she characterized as an effort help him heal emotionally, made her a criminal. (Gaquan Napier did not respond to a request for comment made via his mother.)
“You can take your little girl and get her ears pierced. What is the difference in that?” said Chuntera Napier, who bears a similar memorial to Malik on her own arm. “I didn’t make my child do a thing – that was his choice. That was beautiful that he thought of that.”
Limiting tattoos to adults is a relatively modern, Western practice, said Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist and research associate at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who has studied tattoo culture in 50 Indigenous tribes across 30 countries. From Japan to Kenya to Borneo, he said, tattoos for children marked life stages, were used as tribal identifiers and were believed to have medicinal or therapeutic purposes.
“Maybe decolonizing the Western thought concept of ‘age-appropriate’ tattoos could be enlightening,” Krutak said. “But I am not saying that children should be tattooed at 10 and 11 years old, because they still have a lot to learn about the world.” In the Western world, laws specifically proscribing minors from getting tattoos spread in the middle of the 20th century — although broader child-protection laws were used to prosecute the tattooing of children from the late 19th century onward, said Matt Lodder, a professor who specializes in tattoos at the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex in England. In his new book, “Painted People,” Lodder features a page from a 19th-century toy catalog in which a tattoo machine is offered for sale among the toys.
Legislation limiting tattoos was spurred by health concerns about unsanitary practices and conceptions of moral propriety, Lodder said. “Even 100 years ago, tattooists were having arguments about whether or not it was right to do.”
Thomas, the parent in Highland, New York, near Poughkeepsie, described her case as a misunderstanding. She said she favored age limits and that she had mistakenly believed her son was asking for permission to get a temporary tattoo. “No little child should get tattooed,” she said. She has been charged with endangering the welfare of a child.
A few days after Smith, the tattoo artist, was arraigned in Lloyd Justice Court on charges of dealing unlawfully with a child, a misdemeanor that can entail up to a year in prison, he was racked with deep regret over tattooing the 10-year-old.
“It’s the worst mistake I’ve made in my life,” he said. “At the time, I thought if you got your parents’ permission, you could get a tattoo.”
As for Thomas’ son, today he feels differently about Smith’s agreeing to give him a tattoo. “He should have said no,” the boy said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.