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Indiana lawmaker proposes ban on eyeball tattoos



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A state senator has proposed a bill that would ban a practice known as scleral tattooing, or the tattooing of the whites of the eyes. Indiana Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, introduced the bill, which passed through the state Senate on Jan. 16 and will now head to the House. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

A state senator has proposed a bill that would ban a practice known as scleral tattooing, or the tattooing of the whites of the eyes.

Indiana Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, introduced the bill, which passed through the Senate Jan. 16 and will now head to the House.

Ruckelshaus said he has not seen any reported instances of eyeball tattooing in Indiana, but the purpose of the bill was to be proactive.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to get in front of these issues that can cause health concerns?” Ruckelshaus said.

Ruckelshaus first got the idea for the bill from a neighbor who is currently an optometrist. Ruckelshaus heard about the health risks with eyeball tattooing, such as infection, which can lead to the loss of the eye.

His bill would accomplish three basic goals. First, it would ban the act of performing or offering to perform eyeball tattooing. Second, it would create an exception for licensed health care professionals to perform eyeball tattooing, if it is for a health care purpose. Third, it would make eyeball tattooing a civil offense that is subject to a $10,000 fine.

The bill has already received widespread support, including passing 42-5 in the Senate. Ruckelshaus expects the support to continue as the bill makes its way through the House in the second half of the session.

When the sclera is tattooed, ink is injected between two layers of the whites of an eye. The ink, which can be any color, covers the entire whites of the eye, changing the color of the eyeball.

The practice can be done by trained surgeons to remove scars on the eye, but it’s very rare, said School of Optometry clinical associate professor Dr. Kim Kohne. However, when an untrained health professional performs it, it can lead to many different health risks.

For example, if the needle slips while tattooing, it could penetrate the eye, said School of Optometry clinical associate professor Dr. Todd Peabody. If the instruments aren’t cleaned correctly beforehand, it could lead to infection. People receiving the tattoo could also have an allergic reaction to the metals in the dye. All of these risks could lead to losing the eye completely.

Kohne called eyeball tattooing a public health issue.

“Your vision is critical,” Kohne said. “We’re trying to keep citizens safe.”

Jon Rio, tattoo artist and co-owner of Evil by the Needle, said he has never been asked to give an eyeball tattoo and doesn’t think he ever would give one.

Rio said he has only seen one person with one, a friend of his who had to leave the country to get it done.

Kohne and Peabody are IU professors as well as practicing optometrists. Kohne said she discussed the topic with her students and taught them about the risks.

“There was an opportunity to have a discussion about it,” she said. “It’s important to keep students informed on how to deal with that and how to treat it.”

Peabody said as a health professional, it is his job to stay on top of issues that can cause health concerns. When he first learns about an issue like eyeball tattooing, he tries to learn as much as he can about it.

“Anytime something comes into the world, it’s our duty to learn about it,” he added.

Ruckelshaus said his overall goal is to bring awareness to an issue that could cause problems down the road. A lot of times, certain pieces of legislation can bring public attention to an important issue or problem, Ruckelshaus said.

“This has already brought public awareness to this problem,” Ruckelshaus said. “We want to be proactive to these health care concerns.”

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