An Activist Devoted to His 'Artistry'; South Carolina Man Fights to End a Ban on tattooing.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)

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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 bulletproof 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. …