Michaud: Must parents be part of piercing?

Rich Galgano at Cliff's Tattoo in Centereach.

Rich Galgano at Cliff's Tattoo in Centereach. Photo Credit: Kirsten Luce, 2009

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The New York State Assembly passed a bill last week requiring parents to sign a consent form for their kids younger than 18 who want to have a body part pierced.

I don't normally react badly to nanny state imperatives; I don't miss the trans fats in my New York City restaurant meals one bit. But the body-piercing age limit struck me as intrusive.

It happens that the week before this bill passed, my 14-year-old told me she might like to pierce her upper ear or navel. Those seemed pretty tasteful to me, and more reversible than a tattoo.

"I suppose I should act shocked so you won't take your rebellion phase any further," I joked.

But this is serious. What right does the state have to insert itself into my job as a parent? Forcing my kids to ask permission would turn casual discussions about boundaries and style into high-stakes negotiations.

As a mother of teens, I see how important it is to them to develop their identities. And if everything they do to express themselves has to have a parental sanction -- well, that's no longer self-expression, is it? At least, not a self-expression they are in charge of. It takes the freedom of choice out of the teen's hands and puts parents in the role of censor.

Would I be more concerned if my daughter wanted something awful, like nipple or genital piercing? Or an ear gauge? Absolutely. But then, she wouldn't be likely to talk to me about it. Let's face it, this bill could pretty much put an end to body piercings under age 18.

The bill is in the State Senate now, and it looks likely to pass before the scheduled adjournment on June 21. Legislators are under pressure after news stories in April revealed that kids as young as 12 were able to get body piercings for $20 in the East Village.

Some shops won't do the procedures on anyone who can't prove they're 18, and local laws in some places back them up. But there's no statewide minimum age, and if one parlor refuses to honor a young customer's wish, he or she can always shop around.

There is a certain logic in the body-piercing bill, since teens younger than 18 cannot get a tattoo, even with parental permission. The tattoo artist who breaks this law can fetch a class B misdemeanor, meaning a fine of up to $500 or as much as three months in jail. The body-piercing bill would carry the same penalties.

It's certainly hard to argue against parents being informed about body piercing, since it comes with health risks: allergic reactions, infections and scarring. Piercings can be easy to hide, but parents can watch for health problems if they know about them.

And piercing-shop owners may welcome the law. Who wants the legal liability for maiming or sickening a young client? They would probably be glad to be rid of the pressure to give a 12-year-old a tongue stud.

Katie Ragione at Tattoo Lou's in Selden says the shop already requires notarized parental permission for body piercing, and of those shops that don't, "we tell people to watch out for them." She's concerned that shops that cut parents out could be taking other shortcuts.

But it could also drive body piercing underground. Some piercers would still perform the work without parental permission, maybe at a far higher cost. Or, kids could simply grab a needle and an ice cube and do it themselves. If teenagers are determined to pierce something, they'll find a way.

Most other states have passed laws restricting body piercing for minors. Some Canadian provinces set the age at 16.

That lower age may just strike the right balance, and New York's legislators should consider that compromise. That would keep the younger kids out of the piercing parlors -- and prevent the nanny state from treating older teens like babies.


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