How Curious: Why was Oklahoma the last state in the nation to legalize tattooing?
Nestled in Campus Corner near the University of Oklahoma in Norman is Think Ink Tattoos.
When I walked into the small studio, I was met with the sight of dozens of colorful, bright designs on the wall, similar to the one owner Joshua Crain was tattooing on his fiancé Heather.
Crain has been tattooing for over 20 years, but he was around back when tattooing was not so widely accepted.
Oklahoma banned tattooing in 1963 and was the last state in the nation to legalize the practice in 2006.
Crain has always been curious about who banned tattooing in Oklahoma and why.
When the circus comes to town
Crain heard a rumor that tattooing became illegal because a state lawmaker’s daughter got a tattoo he did not approve of.
“Someone potentially got tattooed by a traveling circus or a fair and could have been really young, just got something kind of silly,” Crain said.
And apparently the state lawmaker was so angry that he drafted legislation to ban tattooing, which went on to be signed into law.
Every tattooist in Oklahoma I mentioned this rumor to had heard a similar version. The rumor was even printed in The Oklahoman in the late '90s.
True or not, the state’s history with tattooing goes back centuries before the ban in the 1960s.
History of ink in Oklahoma
In North America, the Tribes used tattoos to represent themes like belonging, accomplishments and beliefs.
“You do see different styles from the Pawnee and Plains traditions to the southeast to the upper Great Lakes,” Eric Singleton, curator of ethnology at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, said. “And so each of those regions just have different styles.”
But by the late 1800s, Singleton said tattooing essentially stopped in Indigenous cultures due to acculturation and the rise of missionaries.
Even before it was illegal, tattooing had fallen out of favor in Oklahoma, according to Larry Johnson, special collections manager at the Metropolitan Library System.
“If you think of the ‘50s, where proper and polite society was the thing at the time, certain things just simply were not done, and tattooing was one of those things,” Johnson said.
Tattooists were located along “skid row” on Reno Avenue in Oklahoma City. Part of their clientele was military personnel from the naval base in Norman and what is now Tinker Air Force Base in OKC.
“It was considered primitive and low class,” Johnson said. “And tattoo parlors would be located in these places where respectable white middle class should not go.”
Johnson said there were no specific laws in Oklahoma regarding tattooing, but there would occasionally be crack downs related to tattooing minors or women partially disrobing in public.
Paving the way for legalization
When tattooing was banned in Oklahoma in 1963, it pushed residents to surrounding states, like Texas and Arkansas, to get tattoos or set up shop.
But there were also tattooists like Brandon Mull, owner of Water Street Tattoo in Sapulpa, who continued to tattoo in the state, attracting business through word of mouth.
“I had business cards back then that said my name and said body shop on it,” Mull said. “The people that knew what it was knew what the phone number was for. The people that did not would call me at 2:00 in the morning wanting their fender fixed because they got into an accident.”
In his 26 years of tattooing, Mull was arrested twice for the practice in the early 2000s.
“You had to be careful because the police would come and arrest you,” Mull said. “And they would go through your house and take everything that had anything to do with any form of art. And if you did not have your equipment, you could not make money if you did not have another job.”
This led Mull to help form a coalition of tattooists who would hold fundraisers and set up voter registration booths.
But Mull acknowledges that the main driving force behind legalizing tattooing in Oklahoma was former state Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City. After nearly a decade of working to get a bill passed to legalize tattooing, Lindley said it was a relief when the legislation finally went into law.
“Just like you go to a restaurant, you are sure that the food you eat there is safe,” Lindley said. “Even the gas we pump into our cars is regulated by the Corporation Commission. So there is a lot of facets in our lives that have regulations, but I am really glad to see that now people can get safe tattoos.”
Why did Oklahoma ban tattooing?
But to answer tattooist Joshua Crain’s question about why the practice was banned in Oklahoma, I brought the rumor he had heard up to Johnson, who said it is unknown who the state lawmaker or his daughter was, as well as where she got tattooed or what it depicted.
But what is known is that Oklahoma followed a national trend in the early ‘60s to ban tattooing, in part due to concerns over spreading Hepatitis B through unclean needles. But Johnson said there was never any evidence that tattooing led to an outbreak.
The government also began requiring licensing of most services that were tied to the human body, an idea that emerged from the Progressive Movement.
And in addition to many people believing the Bible forbade tattooing, Johnson said the practice also went against white middle class values.
“And that was terrifying to parents in those days that this could happen to their children and that they would be permanently marked, and they would never get a good job, and they would never marry a good person, on and on.” Johnson said.
I paid Crain a visit at Think Ink Tattoos to get his thoughts on what I dug up.
“So many of us have made a living off of this,” Crain said. “So you can imagine how many people could have potentially not moved away from Oklahoma to pursue this career in art. How many more jobs could have been created throughout all those years.”
How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It is produced by Katelyn Howard. This episode was edited by Logan Layden. David Graey composed the theme music. If you have an Oklahoma-related question, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the How Curious podcast on your favorite podcast app.
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