Much ink has been spilled over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and now tattoo artists are feeling that tattoo artists are drying up because of our newfound relationship with the European Union.
Northern Ireland remains within the EU’s single market for goods under the terms of a post-Brexit trade deal. It can now be disclosed that the controversial protocol here has had the unexpected effect of getting tattooers covered by new EU rules banning certain types of pigments in inks.
The rules, which go into effect on Tuesday, mean additional costs for tattooists, who will have to stockpile the wrong type of ink and replace them with an EU-compliant type.
A grace period of one year has been given till the blue and green ink gets an option.
Willie G at Carrickfergus, whose clients include Belfast boxer Carl Frampton and Northern Ireland international footballer Kyle Lafferty, said he was open to change and that some of the larger suppliers had already adapted.
However, he added that many of his peers in the tattoo trade would be caught unintentionally and that there would be a “sticky” period until supplies increase.
“Most people will not realize that the protocol means we have to follow EU rules,” he said.
“Because of Brexit people will think Northern Ireland is fine and it is business as usual, just like it is for the UK. It also means that whatever ink is in the tattoo studio is now void and cannot be used Is.”
Their specialty is black, white and gray body art but the pigments in typical black ink are covered by Prohibition, so they have had to optimize their supplies.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECA) has outlawed ink containing potentially hazardous chemicals, a move that one European in the trade likened to “taking flour from a bakery”.
The new regulations, known as REACH, cover 4,000 chemicals, including an ingredient in tattoo ink called isopropanol alcohol.
The ECA says the ink can be dangerous and even cause genetic mutations and cancer.
A spokesman for the European Commission confirmed that the ban applies here.
Roger Pollen, the head of foreign affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, which includes tattooists among its members, said the problem highlighted several issues.
“Tattooing is generally considered to be a ‘service’ rather than a sale of goods, so the fact that Northern Ireland is considered remaining in the EU Single Market for goods under the NI Protocol, means that the service is being delivered. The materials required for this are also being restricted, even though the delivery of the service is apparently taking place in NI.
“There may still be similarities in the hairdressing sector and many other areas.”
Julie-Anne Cor-Johnston, a UUP representative in northern Belfast and a tattoo lover, also said that most tattoo artists here were unaware that the ban would apply.
She said: “If it turns out that this ban is indeed in force in Northern Ireland, there are serious questions.
Why was it not informed? Why are studio owners and artists robbed of all that lead-in time for planning and preparation?
And more importantly, what does the UK government propose to do to address this situation in an already challenging environment? Businesses in Northern Ireland cannot be put at a disadvantage.”
Mr Pollen said the tattoo ink prohibition has affected tattooists across Europe, but there may be other EU regulations that have a disproportionate effect in Northern Ireland – including or opposing rules for trade. There is no scope.
He added: “In addition, it sheds light on how the impact of Protocols are still only emerging, so any meaning we can see now as ‘what does the business think about the protocol’ ignores the fact that its operation is still only partial, but once a grace period etc. After resolving this, the results can continue to develop such regulation.”
A tattoo artist in Belfast city centre, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused “European Union bureaucrats” of wrongdoing. “They made the decision based on the assumption that some pigments are carcinogenic, yet there is no proven link between cancer and having a tattoo,” he said.
“We honestly didn’t feel it would apply to us, although I seriously doubt it would be implemented in Northern Ireland.”
She said she feared the European sanctions would be adopted as a policy elsewhere.
“This would be devastating to the international tattooing community because so many inks contain banned pigments, not just blue and green dyes.”
But Willie G said that his supply of black ink is now from a compliant supplier.
“Some ink companies are working very hard to comply, although some stuck their heads in the sand because they didn’t think that would happen,” he said.
“But then you have a company like World Famous Inc., and they have over 100 colors launching that are compliant.
“Things will be back to normal in the long run, but it is up to the companies to innovate and make new inks that are compliant but it will take some time. It could be a little tough before then.”