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Looking to tattoo your eyeball in Alaska? Not going to happen

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

When alleged cop shooter Jason Barnum stepped out of an Anchorage hotel room and surrendered to police last week, it was hard not wonder if he was something out of a horror movie. With a bloody arm, pale face and numerous tattoos, some thought Barnum looked like a zombie.

Not helping was Barnum's right eye, which is tattooed black.

While facial tattoos are rare enough, tattooed eyeballs are even rarer. And if you want to get one in Anchorage, good luck. While it might be technically possible, most tattoo artists won't do it.

“No reputable shop would do that,” said Kirk Tapley, a tattoo artist at Anchorage Tattoo Studio.

Menacing 

Barnum, 37, is an admitted heroin addict who's spent nearly a decade in prison. He’s covered with numerous tattoos, including many on his face. In keeping with what appears to be the outline of skull on one side of his face, the whites of Barnum's right eye are completely black.

Piercer Charlie Watson pointed out that even if you covered all of Barnum's numerous tattoos -- which include skulls, a crown of thorns and a grim reaper-like figure on his cheek -- his one, dark recess of an eyeball looks menacing.

Watson, who has worked at Body Piercing Unlimited the last nine years, has a split tongue himself. But he said eye tattoos push the boundaries of extreme body modification.

“It's intense,” he said. “Even if it's purple or green, it's a lot to take in.”

Tapley has been tattooing in Anchorage for 13 years. While he's seen the style at trade shows, he's only seen one other eyeball tattoo in Alaska's largest city. He saw it last spring, when a man came in with both eyeballs tattooed forest green.

“It's not real common here,” he said.

Prison tattoo?

Tattoo artists in Anchorage suspect Barnum's tattoo was done in prison. According to the state Department of Corrections, Barnum has spent numerous stints in correctional facilities since 2001, at both Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward and Hudson Correctional Facility in Hudson, Colo. Barnum, who is now in custody at the Anchorage Jail, was last released from prison Dec. 30, 2011.

The Department of Corrections didn't immediately have numbers on how many Alaska inmates are reprimanded for tattooing in prison. While not a crime per se, it is a serious infraction. The consequences of being found giving or getting a tattoo include segregation and loss of privileges.

Reed Leslie of The Hole Look has been a tattoo artist for 20 years. He's only seen eyeball tattooing done on TV.

“Any tattoo artist in their right mind shouldn't know about it,” he said.

Health risks

But check out a few quick YouTube videos, and it’s easy to see how eyeball tats work. Generally it involves a hypodermic needle filled with ink, which is injected in pockets around the whites of the eyes. The ink spreads throughout the cornea’s tissue, but doesn't pass over the retina, so vision isn’t impacted.

At least not immediately. Dr. Kathleen Rice of the Eye Clinic of Fairbanks said the health risks of such a procedure are numerous. Infection, inflammation, fluid loss (the eyeball could slowly deflate, Rice said) and retinal detachment were just a few of the many complications that could arise out of an eyeball tattoo. Partial or total vision loss are a definite concern.

“I don't recommend it,” she said.

Rice said prisoners getting tattoos probably don’t adopt the safest route. Methods used to create the ink, whether by mixing carbon into soap or using ink from ballpoint pens, are probably not sterile.

“A surgeon who has to go in there and clean up the eye, they don't know what was used,” she said. “They don't know what sort of bugs could be in there.”

A prison tattoo gun. [Loren Holmes photo]

Rice pointed out that while eyeball tattooing has been done for thousands of years, it's not common. While it can be used as a cosmetic procedure, patients generally opt for a contact lens instead.

Alaska limitations

There's no specific state regulation prohibiting eyeball tattoos.

Sara Chambers, administrative operations manager with the Alaska Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing, said state tattooing regulations don't limit the practice to any particular body parts. However, depending on the technique, eyeball tattooing might be considered a medical procedure and require a medical license.

Jason Wiard, an environmental health inspector based in Juneau, has never encountered a parlor offering eyeball tattoos. He said if he did, he would have some serious questions.

“If you were going to get a tattoo on an eyeball, I don't see how you could do that without being out of regulation and out of code,” he said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com