Many feeling off-colour as Protocol leads to ban on certain pigments
Much ink has been spilled on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and now tattoo artists are finding theirs is running dry because of our new relationship with the EU.
Northern Ireland remains within the EU single market for goods under the terms of the post-Brexit trading agreement. Now can be revealed that the controversial protocol has had the unexpected effect of leaving tattooists here covered by new EU rules banning certain types of pigments in ink.
The regulations, which came into force on Tuesday, mean extra costs for tattooists who’ll have to ditch stocks of the wrong kinds of ink and replace them with the EU-compliant kind.
Blue and green inks have been granted a grace period of a year until alternatives can be found.
Willy G in Carrickfergus, whose clients include Belfast boxer Carl Frampton and Northern Ireland international footballer Kyle Lafferty, said he had been prepared for the change and some big suppliers had already adapted.
However, he said many of his peers in the tattoo trade here would be caught unawares and there would be a “sticky” period until supplies catch up.
“Most won’t realise that the protocol means we have to follow EU regulations,” he said.
“Because of Brexit people will think Northern Ireland is fine and it’s business as usual, like it is for the UK. It also means whatever ink the tattoo studios have is now void and can’t be used.”
His specialism is black, white and grey body art but pigments in typical black ink are covered by the prohibition, so he has had to adapt his supplies.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECA) has outlawed inks containing potentially hazardous chemicals, a move which one European in the trade likened to “taking the flour from a bakery”.
The new regulations, known as Reach, cover 4,000 chemicals including an ingredient in tattoo inks known as isopropanol alcohol.
The ECA says the inks can be dangerous and even cause genetic mutations and cancer.
A spokesman for the European Commission confirmed that the ban does apply here.
Roger Pollen, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, which includes tattooists among its members, said the problem illuminated a number of issues.
“Tattooing is generally thought of being a ‘service’ rather than sale of goods, so the fact that Northern Ireland is regarded under the NI Protocol as remaining in the EU single market for goods, means that the materials required to deliver the service are also being restricted, even though delivery of the service is clearly occurring in NI.
“There may yet be parallels in the hairdressing sector and in many other sectors.”
Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston, a UUP representative in north Belfast and a tattoo aficionado, also said most tattoo artists here were unaware that the ban would apply here.
She said: “If it transpires that this ban is indeed applicable in Northern Ireland, then there are serious questions.
“Why has this not been communicated? Why have studio owners and artists been robbed of that lead-in time for planning and preparation?
“And more importantly, what does the UK Government propose to do to remedy this situation in an already challenging environment? Businesses in Northern Ireland cannot be placed at a disadvantage.”
Mr Pollen said that while the tattoo ink prohibition affected tattooists across Europe, there could be further EU rules which have a disproportionate impact in Northern Ireland – with no scope for business to engage or resist the rules.
He added: “Beyond this, it highlights how impacts of the protocol are still only emerging, so any sense that we can take a view now as to ‘what business thinks of the protocol’ ignores the fact that its operation is still only partial, but even once grace periods etc are sorted, evolving regulation like this could continue to throw up consequences.”
One tattoo artist in Belfast city centre, who did not wish to be named, accused “EU bureaucrats” of making an ill-informed decision. “They have made the decision based on the assumption that certain pigments are carcinogenic, yet there are no proven links between cancer and having tattoos,” they said.
“We honestly didn’t realise this would apply to us although I seriously doubt it will be enforced in Northern Ireland.”
She said she feared the European ban would be adopted as policy elsewhere.
“That would be catastrophic for the international tattooing community as so many inks include the banned pigments and not just the blue and green colours themselves.”
But Willy G said his supplies of black inks now came from a compliant supplier.
“Some ink companies have been working very hard to comply, though some stuck their head in the sand as they didn’t think this would come through,” he said.
“But then you have a company like World Famous Inks, and they have over 100 colours about to be launched which do comply.
“In the long run things will fall back to normal but it’s up to those companies to innovate and create new inks that do comply but that will take a while. There might be a bit of a sticky period before then.”