The suspension of 10 students at a private school in Nyeri has sparked a heated debate on the legality and societal perception of tattooing in the country.
While society remains greatly divided on the topic of tattoos, the lack of legal provisions to regulate the emerging trend has now left the fate of the students of St Mary's Boys Secondary School in Nyeri in limbo.
Generally, having a tattoo is largely a topic of personal perception even among adults.
While for a long time tattooing has been associated with indiscipline and rebellion, it is fast becoming an acceptable form of body art.
Some employers such as the police and military are known for their zero-tolerance of tattoos while others require employees to keep them covered.
But the ultimate question remains; where do we draw the line on tattoos?
Now parents, teachers, education experts, tattoo artists and legal practitioners are entangled in the debate on the legal age for tattooing and whether minors, especially teenagers, should get them. At the same time the question of consenting to tattoos has emerged.
St Mary's Boys Secondary School, a faith based institution in Nyeri Town has held its ground that it will not readmit the students until they remove the permanent tattoos off their bodies.
A student who spoke to the Nation on the matter said that the decision to get the tattoo was out of love for art. The student whose identity has been withheld for legal reasons says that he does not regret getting the tattoo but feels he was unfairly sent away from school.
"One of those suspended was found to have a piercing and a tattoo as well so the school decided to conduct an inspection on all of us. Those of us who were found to have them were sent away," the student said.
Like many progressive teenagers, the students see no harm in getting these permanent markings but are now paying the price for an unregulated service that has been taking root across the country.
NO QUESTIONS ASKED
"I love art and that is what led me to getting one. I did not tell my parent and the artist who drew the tattoo did not ask for my age or any identification. I do not regret my decision but if the school insists I have to remove it then I guess I will just have to do that," the student said.
Besides the dilemma of how and where to have the tattoos removed, the affected students now feel victimized largely because of societal profiling of tattoos with rebellion, indiscipline, crime and even cultism.
The only option that is left for the students is laser removal of tattoos, another unregulated field.
Highly concentrated laser beams are directed on the tattooed area and the beams break up ink particles into tiny fragments which are later cleared up by the body.
This process requires a minimum of up to four sessions based on the depth of the ink. Each session costs as much as Sh8,000.
Following their suspension, some of the students now feel victimised for having tattoos out of what can only be seen as an adolescent fit, some saying they are being wrongfully alienated. They argue they only got the tattoos for the thrill.
In fact, parents whose children have gotten in trouble for getting tattoos are afraid to air their concerns and frustrations publicly as they fear their children will be victimised. Some feel that society will view the issue as a parental failure.
"The truth is that we are dealing with a very different and exposed generation of children. They have a lot of access to information and parents cannot control that fully. On the tattoo issue we need to blame society as a whole. The tattoo business has not been regulated and very little oversight is done," said a parent who requested anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.
The parent argues that even though they have a responsibility to discipline their children, society has remained blind to some of the emerging trends, tattooing being one of them.
"This is a real trend we are facing and honestly we have not paid attention to it and we are all to blame for it. We might blame the artists but they argue that they have broken no law and are only in business. It is about time the government steps in and puts up regulations on this business," the parent added.
Similarly, the ministry of education is as vague on the whole issue as the law is. Nyeri County Director of Education Sabina Aroni told the Nation that even though they are aware of the case, no action has been taken so far on the matter. She said that the law is silent on the issue of students having tattoos.
"On the matter of tattoos the law is very silent. I am aware of the case at the school and it is quite tricky and requires that we look at each case individually. Maybe the school sees it as a case of indiscipline but there is really no guideline in the education act on tattoos. We will have to consult higher on this issue," the education boss said.
Legal experts are now calling for clear regulations on the business saying the current provisions in the constitution are too vague.
"In my opinion this could be viewed from the issue of consent. Minors cannot give any consent for any form of scaring on their bodies and in my opinion tattoos are scarring. Causing such harm can result in criminal culpability under the Penal Code," Nyeri based lawyer Wahome Gikonyo told the Nation.
Nevertheless, he insists that lack of legal oversight and regulation allows tattoo artists to get away with tattooing minors.
"The artists will argue there is no law over them on how they run their business. And this calls for the government to come up with strict rules and laws on how tattoo parlours operate so that we can deal with such cases. That gap in the law needs to be addressed immediately," he said.
Mr Gikonyo however argues that having tattoos is not reason enough to bar students from resuming studies as it is a basic right under the constitution.
"That is not a reason to keep them from school. The law dictates that every child has a right to education regardless of what they have done. And this applies to both public and private schools," he said.