Fabrizio Funelli, founder of the Funestik Tattoo Mania parlor in Brussels, is in a rush.
When his regular, Nicolas Hosse, came in for a full sleeve of multi-colored tattoos on his arm in early 2020, both planned for the process to take six months at most.
The pandemic pushed back the timeline, as parlors like Funelli’s were forced to shut amid government-mandated lockdowns.
Now that Hosse is back in the chair, they face another, more permanent, obstacle: Most of the inks in Funelli’s tattoo pen will soon be illegal under EU rules.
Starting on January 4, the use of over 4,000 hazardous, but previously unregulated, chemicals in tattoo ink will be banned under the bloc’s flagship chemicals legislation REACH. That includes several ingredients like isopropanol alcohol, which ink suppliers say features in most pigments on the market.
European tattoo artists worry the new rules could kill off their business. Manufacturers, they say, have been slow to come up with replacement inks, which they also worry might not have the same vibrancy and staying power.
Funelli, who inked his first designs in 1997, said he isn’t sure he will be able to keep offering his colorful, trademark “neo-Japanese” designs in the new year.
After nearly two years of pandemic-induced uncertainty, many businesses resent the additional confusion and burden of new restrictions.
Marjorie Petit, one half of the husband-and-wife team at Duck Art Tattoo in the Belgian city of Mechelen, said they recently had to warn one new client who had asked for a “full sleeve, totally in color.” They could start on the months-long process but didn’t know whether they’d have a “good replacement” for the inks in January.
Hosse, for his part, said he resents the intrusion into what he sees as his right to make choices about his own health. If he’s allowed to smoke and drink, why not get a tattoo with an ink that may, or may not, be carcinogenic?
Tattooists in France, Germany and beyond are similarly up in arms. One EU-wide petition titled “Save the Pigments” complains about an upcoming ban on two specific ink colors, garnering some 170,000 signatures so far.
The ban would “negatively affect the economic competitiveness of European tattooists and pigmenters vis-à-vis providers outside the EU,” it argues, and “promote the revival of so-called backyard tattooists, i.e. illegal providers, as well as the carrying out of commercially unreported practices.”
Scientific research so far on whether tattoo inks cause cancer remains inconclusive. Some of the substances found in tattoo inks have been proven to be carcinogenic, but a direct link has yet to be established. One review from 2012 said any association between skin cancers arising in tattoos “has to be considered thus far as coincidental.” Another from 2016 holds that adverse reactions are “relatively rare” and “generally unpredictable” and tend to be provoked by the immune system or skin infections.
The “long-term health effects” of tattoos have never been investigated, explain researchers from Sweden’s Lund University, who are currently working on a project to “for the first time ever” answer whether having tattoos is linked to increased cancer risk. The project will come to a close at the end of next year.
In addition to carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMR) substances, the regulation’s scope also covers skin irritants, substances that are “corrosive or damaging to the eye,” and other chemicals already regulated in cosmetic products.
The intention is not to cripple the tattoo business, but to make it safer, said Mark Blainey, an expert at the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) who worked on the proposal for the ban.
The agency concluded that the restriction was “proportionate to the risk” because it would bring “significant” social benefits, including the avoidance of “adverse skin effects and other health impacts.” It also predicted there would be no “significant economic impacts on supply chains.”
Manufacturers have had several years to provide REACH-approved replacements for the soon-to-be-banned inks, Blainey points out.
They were also given an extra year to find alternatives for two specific pigments — Pigment Blue 15 and Pigment Green 7 — that ink manufacturers complained will prove particularly difficult to replace, and are the focus of the “Save the Pigments” petition. These will be banned in January 2023.
“It’s really up to the manufacturers to make sure they source their inks from somewhere which allows them to comply with the legislation,” Blainey said.
He added that tattoo artists should be familiar with adapting to new health regulations. Seven EU countries — France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and Sweden — have already incorporated into national legislation guidelines on tattoo inks adopted by the rights organization Council of Europe in 2003 and 2008.
Five shades of gray
Tattoo parlors say manufacturers are dragging their heels.
“We now every week get messages from manufacturers that they’re working on it, but the communication about that is not quite transparent,” said Petit. “So they say it’s coming, it’s coming … But when?”
Popular Belgian ink supplier TekTik has marked 131 “artists inks” available on its website with a warning label that reads: “All inks in this category are NOT REACH compliant and can NOT be used for tattooing after 4 January 2022.”
The list of “tattoo inks” declared “REACH compliant” features just seven products — all in shades of black, white and gray.
Like Petit, TekTik is not impressed with the manufacturers’ reaction time.
“We are informed that Eternal, Intenze, World Famous and Silverback are working on the final testing phase of a [colored] REACH compliant ink,” it wrote in a blog post dated December 15, referring to ink makers. “However, we have not received a deadline for this and we receive [either] no response to our e-mails or a blunt ‘We are working on it.’”
In an emailed statement, a customer relations manager from Intenze said: “We understand the frustration and uncertainty that our customers must be feeling with the new regulation that is due to go into effect in the EU in January of 2022 … We are currently reformulating our products so that they will be compliant with the EU regulations.
“We do not have any further comments that we can provide at this time regarding the new regulation or when products will be available, but we will be sure to keep our customers updated as we receive information.”
Eternal, World Famous and Silverback did not respond to a request for comment.
Even among those who welcome the new restriction, its unprecedented scope raises concerns about enforcement.
Natacha Cingotti, with the nonprofit Health and Environment Alliance, said she broadly welcomes the “balanced” restriction but wonders to what extent national authorities will be able to ensure compliance — especially as the legislation targets a sector made up of small businesses and freelancers.
In Belgium, Duck Art Tattoo’s Petit and Funestik’s Funelli said they were disappointed with what they see as a lack of clear communication from the Belgian government.
Two weeks before the deadline, the tattooists say they still don’t know how the legislation will be enforced and what penalties they could face in case of noncompliance.
“We don’t know anything,” said Petit. “We don’t know how the controls will be. We don’t know how it will be translated into practice.”
The Belgian government did not reply to a request for comment.
“It’s very strange that [the government doesn’t] give the advice in time so we can have the time to turn around to change,” said Funelli.
The idea of European bureaucrats trying to bring the tattoo industry to heel made him laugh, he added: “I think they don’t know what kind of people they’re attacking.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.