Lawmakers want to stop you from tattooing your eyeballs

Feb 21, 2019, 12:15 PM

Just in case you were planning on getting a tattoo on your eyeball, you better act quick. Washington lawmakers are considering a bill that will ban scleral tattoos in the state.

“In some ways it seems like it could be kind of humorous … but it’s actually a serious thing,” said State Representative Steve Tharinger. “….It’s pretty horrific when you take a look at what can happen.”

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Tharinger represents Washington’s 24th Legislative District, which covers much of the Olympic Peninsula. He is one of 17 sponsors of HB 1856, which aims to ban scleral tattoos, or offering to perform the procedure. Tharinger says that representatives from the optometrists and ophthalmologists industry reached out to state lawmakers to do something about scleral tattooing, prompting the bill.

Scleral tattoos are performed on the white, fibrous, outer layer of the eyeball; not the cornea.

“The strict definition of tattooing is the introduction of pigment to the surface of the skin,” said James Hillary, a Seattle-based tattoo artist. “But (scleral tattooing), from what I understand, is an injection of pigment using a hypodermic syringe. So it’s actually using medical devices to inject pigment into the white of the eyeball.”

Representative Tharinger says that he is unaware of how many people have been practicing scleral tattooing in Washington state, or affected by it in any way. He knows that horror stories have garnered national headlines, and he feels the concerns of professionals like optometrists should be taken seriously.

“There’s a real high risk of damaging your eyesight and your eye,” Tharinger said. “The optometrists and ophthalmologists are very concerned about this going on and people taking risks they shouldn’t with their eyesight.”

“Even professionals, physicians, optometrists and ophthalmologists say this is such a delicate membrane that it is very easy, if you are injecting fluid or coloring there, to do damage to your eye,” he said. “It’s just too risky, the professionals think, so that’s the concern that some person on an impulse, might want to turn their eyes bright purple, and in the end they may lose their eyesight.”

HB 1856 will be heard in the Health and Wellness Committee this week, and could be voted on by the committee by Friday. The rules committee in the House is the next stop.

Scleral tattoos

James Hillary has been in the tattoo industry for more than 30 years, and currently works out of Seattle Tattoo Emporium. He attends a lot of international tattoo expos and is familiar with body art trends.

He hasn’t personally seen any scleral tattooing going on in the industry. In fact, he’s only heard about it taking place in prisons and is surprised that it has garnered enough attention to be banned.

“It’s a very recent thing and it’s rarely indulged,” Hillary said. “It seems rather ridiculous that it merits legislation.”

“I don’t see it all in line with tattooing; it’s such an outlier,” Hillary said. “We don’t get phone calls asking about it at all. I attend large, international tattoo conventions where you have people from all over the world exhibiting their tattooing and practicing their tattooing, and I have never seen this phenomenon.”


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Lawmakers want to stop you from tattooing your eyeballs