Ban on human eyeball tattooing wins first-round approval

March 6, 2019

The Legislature on Wednesday gave first-round approval to a measure that would make it illegal for anyone to tattoo another human’s eyeball in Nebraska.

(If you want to know more, by all means, please keep reading. If you’d rather read something else, that’s OK, too.)

Sen. Lynne Walz’s bill (LB449) prohibits the use of needles, scalpels or other equipment to permanently mark the human eye -- a practice commonly known as scleral tattooing -- except if the procedure is performed by a trained health professional in the scope of their practice.

And even then, the Fremont senator said, “I have no idea in the world why you would want to do it.”

Walz’s bill would not prohibit a person from tattooing, or attempting to tattoo, their own eye, and an amendment passed Wednesday moves the bill from state statute regulating body artists to state law regulating professional licensing.

Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said Walz’s bill “was -- by far -- the most disgusting bill” she’s heard in her seven years on the committee.

Senators on Wednesday discussed scleral tattoos may be performed for some medical reasons -- to hide eye injuries or abnormalities, for example -- that led them away from an all-out ban.

But, even in medical procedures, scleral tattooing can be dangerous.

“The surgeons are correct,” said Matthew Bavougian, a Lincoln body artist who lobbies on behalf of tattoo and piercing studios, and lectures health inspectors on how to check on those businesses.

“It’s a terrible idea. It’s not something that should be done to people until a doctor figures out there is a medical purpose to it,” he added. “At this point, there isn’t.”

The University of Utah Health said tattoos on the eye are not like those of the skin. Whereas pigment injected into the skin remains in one place, the ink or pigment injected into the 1-millimeter cavity between the sclera and conjunctiva in the eye can float and spread uncontrollably.

That could potentially cause permanent swelling in the white tissue of the eye, while the injection procedure in itself risks causing a range of maladies from infections of the eye to blindness.

Bavougian said he knows people who have tattooed someone’s eye and who have had their eye tattooed, to mixed results. He said his neutral committee testimony sought “to lend more insight into what is actually going on as opposed to what is portrayed through legislation.”

An amendment that became the bill on Wednesday shifted its direction to regulate licensing rather than tattoo artists specifically, he said, which was an agreement reached between lawmakers, ophthalmologists and body artists to protect public health.

Still, Bavougian said the bill has sensationalized the issue, and led to a situation where bad legislation could be written based upon fear, not facts.

“Honestly, I think they should drop it,” he said.

Walz’s bill, which advanced 40-0, could be heard two more times this year. And many senators, including Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, seemed happy to see it move along Wednesday.

“I hope everyone will vote for this quickly so we never have to discuss this again,” she said.