- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

When Ronald White appeared on WBTW-TV Channel 13 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he knew his civil disobedience would lead to trouble.
But he had no idea how much. Since that May 1999 appearance, Mr. White has had his gun collection and other personal belongings confiscated. He has been arrested, fined, put on probation and bankrupted. This week, the state will decide whether to put him in jail.
Mr. White, 33, is an activist for an unusual cause: tattooing. It is permitted nationwide, except in South Carolina and Oklahoma. As a self-described "tattoo artist," Mr. White says his occupation is a form of art entitled to First Amendment protection. Before his arrest, no one had ever been charged under the 1966 tattoo ban.
"This subject is desperately important to me," Mr. White says. "I couldn't stand to work in an underground situation."
One-time special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr, best known for his investigation of former President Clinton's financial dealings, is representing Mr. White pro bono because of the case's free speech implications.
Mr. White's troubles began when he appeared on the local nightly news, inking a tattoo in defiance of the law while the camera rolled. The broadcast then showed him discussing his views on tattooing as free speech.
Belief in free speech is a White family tradition. In 1956, his parents fled to the United States from Hungary after voicing opposition to Hungary's communist government.
After leaving Hungary, Mr. White's parents built a 75-foot yacht, naming it "Our Escapade," spending most of their time at sea. When he tired of his family's nautical existence, he ran away at 16 and settled in South Carolina.
"It was the first stationary home I'd had in my life," he says. But the nomadic life had left its mark. "Many hard years at sea made me scared of nothing, [gave me] an adventurous spirit ready to face any unknowns in the world I might come across."
Outspoken and rebellious, Mr. White gravitated toward punk rock and began playing bass and singing for Uptight, a Florence, S.C.-based band.
It was punk rock that gave him an activist's bent, and when he fell in love with tattooing as a 19-year-old, Mr. White found his cause. He started researching the practice and South Carolina's tattooing ban.
"By '95, I was tattooing and attending legislative sessions, writing letters and trying to change the law," Mr. White recalls. In the process, he formed an alliance with state Sen. William Mescher, a Republican. Since 1992, Mr. Mescher has proposed five bills to repeal the tattooing ban, all of which passed the state Senate only to die in the house.
In 1997 Mr. White tried to file a lawsuit against the state, but no lawyers would take his case.
"I was losing faith in the legislative process," he says. "When legal options fail, what do you do?"
So an exasperated Mr. White made his protest public and braced for the consequences.
Ten days after his TV appearance, a squad of nine or 10 police officers, dressed in olive green combat gear and bullet-proof vests, arrested him at his Florence home. Mr. White contends that the officers damaged his property and confiscated personal items not related to tattooing.
"These Gestapo tactics were what my family left Hungary to escape," Mr. White says. "They've only further infuriated me in this fight."
Mr. White was soon brought before state Circuit Court Judge Hicks Harwell.
"The judge was asking all the questions," Mr. White recalls. "The prosecuting attorney couldn't get a word in edgewise."
The judge didn't buy Mr. White's constitutional argument and handed down the maximum sentence: a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. By promising not to tattoo in South Carolina, Mr. White substituted five years of probation for the jail time. Now Mr. White tattoos his customers in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina.
His friends and lawyers say the sentence is harsh, especially for a first offense.
Mr. White calls the action "extreme" and says, "I believe they railroaded me because I wouldn't shut up."
He took his case to the state Supreme Court, which upheld Judge Harwell's ruling. The court found that the state could control tattooing because of its health risks. Additionally, some studies have found tattooing to be a risk factor among teens, linking the practice to illegal drug use and higher suicide rates.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Since Mr. White's arrest, two other tattooers have felt heat from the police. One man was arrested several months ago for possessing tattooing equipment. Another, tipped off that he was about to be arrested, packed up his family and fled to Georgia in the middle of the night.
"We have a soap opera circus going on in South Carolina," Mr. White says.
If the situation is a circus, former state Rep. John "Jake" Knotts is the ringmaster. A rigid Republican from one of the most conservative districts in South Carolina, Mr. Knotts has parlayed the tattooing ban into his signature issue.
Although the law was written out of concern for public health, Mr. Knotts cites Leviticus: 19:28: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you."
"If the Lord wanted you to have a tattoo, he would have put it on you," Mr. Knotts has told the State, a South Carolina newspaper.
He also says he's trying to preserve the family atmosphere of Myrtle Beach by keeping seedy tattoo parlors out.
Mr. Knotts did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Recently Mr. White's case acquired a new twist. In the chaos after his Supreme Court appeal, he forgot to file a probation report.
"I was going through a lot of stress with the appeal," Mr. White says. "I was besieged with calls from the media. I missed a report. I had no intention to, but I missed it."
Violating the terms of his probation could land him in jail for a year.
Mr. White's hearing is scheduled for Friday before Judge Harwell, the same judge who watched as his decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.
Despite the setbacks, the fight to legalize tattooing continues. Mr. Mescher plans to introduce his legalization bill once again. Mr. White's attorneys are planning to start the federal appeals process in the next few weeks.
"I'm a patriot," Mr. White says, "not an Archie Bunker slob waving an American flag."

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