An artist tattoos a client in the recently opened Esme Body Art Studio at Manuel Reef. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Upstairs of a motorbike showroom in Manuel Reef, one of the artists at Steven Nguyen’s body art shop searched the internet for “best cancer tattoos for men.”

The tattoo he was planning was a commemoration for his client’s mother.

“I have about four of them,” said the client, who asked not to be named, while pointing at other ribbons on his arm. “This is going to be my 22nd tattoo altogether.”

The tattoo — which featured his mother’s middle name, Dolores — was to be inked on his neck.

To design it, Mr. Nguyen and the tattoo artist sat in front of a computer, tweaking it to perfection.

Ten years ago, tattoo shops offered booklets of designs that customers could browse, but today the process is typically digitised, Mr. Nguyen said.

A customer can look up any design online, and the artist can draw the concept with an illustration programme and print it out onto adhesive paper that sticks to the skin.

After that, the artist can trace the design before ever bringing the needle to the body, ensuring accuracy, which is particularly important when words are involved in the design.

But while tattooing has changed rapidly in recent years, the Virgin Islands has not kept pace with related legislation. In fact, there is currently no legislation in the territory that regulates the practice.

Gov’t inspection

There are at least two body art studios in the territory that offer tattoos. The newest is Mr. Nguyen’s shop, Esme Body Art Studio, which opened in August.

Before opening, Mr. Nguyen acquired a trade licence and underwent an inspection from the Environmental Health Division. And in the absence of tattoo-specific VI legislation, he carefully follows standard safety and health protocols that would be required in other countries, he said.

Stacy Mather said he did the same after he and his brother opened Lion Ink Studio in 2015. But he has also been pushing for regulations for years.

Long before opening his studio, which was destroyed in Hurricane Irma, he proposed a draft tattoo-and-piercing safety legislation to the government for consideration in 2008.

He was later told it had been “lost,” he said.

Like Mr. Nguyen, Mr. Mather said his studio secured a trade licence and was cleared to practise after passing an inspection by the Environmental Health Division.

It also followed the standards of the American Piercing Association and other accreditation bodies, he said.

Unregulated operations

But in the absence of regulations, Mr. Mather said, people in the territory have inked tattoos without trade licences or health permits for years.

“People would migrate from other Caribbean countries, and they would come here and they would practice,” Mr. Mather said. “Back then, their sterilisation process for tattooing was pressure cookers with Clorox water and that kind of stuff. Some of them, in their countries [tattooing is] regulated, and in the [VI] it wasn’t regulated.”

Now, he said, many at-home tattoo artists have professional equipment including single-use needles.

But regulation, he added, is still needed.

“If we don’t regulate it, we’re going to have more young people getting tattoos in homes, in corners, and they’re going to have bad experiences,” he said.

In regulated tattoos shops, he explained, set rules can discourage bad decisions.

“Any shop in the world has parameters,” Mr. Mather said. “For example, in St. Thomas, it’s illegal to tattoo below the wrist. It’s illegal to tattoo below Mr. Mather said that VI leaders are being “irresponsible” by not addressing the lack of regulations here.

“They don’t think it’s necessary right now, because they think if you go and you do something to your body, it’s your own risk,” he said.

The Ministry of Health and Social Development didn’t respond to requests for comment.

All walks of life

Reasons for getting tattoos differ from person to person. Mr. Nguyen’s client described tattooing as “stress relief.”

For Mr. Mather, tattooing is a way of telling his life story. “Part of body art for me is showing a part of myself that I don’t normally show,” he said. “For some of us, it’s a ritual.”

Mr. Mather noted that he and his brother have tattooed people from all walks of life, including lawyers, doctors and preachers.

“The derogatory connotation of a person who had tattoos was a drunken sailor. We’ve passed that. I think sometimes we live in a bubble and we don’t realise it in the [VI],” Mr. Mather said. “In the [VI] we believe that if you have tattoos you won’t get a job. The rest of the world doesn’t believe that anymore.”