Don Folmer flings off the tie and black coat he wore for his meeting with the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals. From beneath his starched collar pops a tattoo of a Japanese flower. Inky mosaics crawl out from under his shirt cuffs.
"This one's taking your money; the other one's cutting your throat," he booms as he paces his Lorain Avenue tattoo parlor. He is speaking of the city agencies that govern his business. "It's legalized extortion. That's all it is!"
It is everything Folmer wanted to say but didn't during the meeting, where city officials denied a zoning variance for Wicked Tattoo & Piercing. The reason: It's within 1,000 feet of a school.
Based on a peculiar ordinance that took effect in June, tattoo parlors must follow the same zoning restrictions as strip clubs and porn shops. That is, they must be 1,000 feet away from homes, day cares, schools, libraries, churches, playgrounds, and rec centers. Parlors are considered temporary businesses by the city, so even those operating before the measure passed are not excluded.
Folmer's professional dress aimed to prove that just because he shares a zoning classification with smut peddlers, he's no lowlife. He's a businessman. And he is trying to run a shop that's safe and legit.
That's a considerable task, given the gauntlet of regulations laid down by Cleveland lawmakers. Every week, parlor owners must purchase new permits and endure more city inspections. Meanwhile, illegal tattoo parlors can work without those overhead expenses and thus offer tattoos at generous discounts: The $100 legal tattoo might cost $40 underground. If government regulation is supposed to cleanse the industry of hustlers and disease, it seems to be backfiring.
Tattooing was illegal in Cleveland until a court challenge last year moved the city to permit shops on a temporary basis. That meant artists could practice their craft as long as they paid $25 for a new permit every four days. Folmer's shop employs four artists, which means he kicked $100 to the city at least once a week. That's the part he considers extortion.
And each renewal also requires a visit from a health inspector, who makes sure the shop is clean and that artists are using sterile equipment. That's an inspection every four days: scrutiny befitting a nuclear reactor.
All of which has artists grumbling that the regulations aren't designed to make tattooing safe, but to kill it altogether.
"They think tattoos are a bad thing -- it's just for the sailors and whores," says Angela Paluch, co-owner of On Point Professionals on Payne Avenue.
But if artists were furious before, they became positively livid last week when the Department of Public Health announced new rules. Licenses will still be temporary, except now they will have to be renewed daily, at a cost of $50. Worse, the licenses can be renewed no more than 40 times, which leaves an artist with only 40 workdays a year -- and now with daily health inspections.
"This," says Folmer, "is bullshit."
Speaking with city officials only feeds his rage. Originally, the health department wrote its rules without consulting zoning officials, who had their own codes, some of which directly contradicted those of health officials. The two agencies are so out of synch that shop owners must explain to one agency what the other is doing.
Even city council members seem unable to explain the regulatory nightmare. West Side Councilwoman Dona Brady says that because tattoo parlors are zoned as "adult use," giving shops permanent status would allow them to reopen as strip clubs. Asked whether the solution might be to simply exclude parlors from treatment as adult businesses, Brady admits, "I'm at a loss as to why they're classified as adult businesses."
Actually, artists already know of a quicker path around city regulations: Tattoo illegally. Many already are. "Joe Schmo orders a tattoo kit out of the back of the magazine, he practices on his friends, and he decides he can make money," explains Brian Ward, an artist at Wicked Tattoo.
Amateurs can turn profits as long as people want to save on their body art. But if the tattoos come at a discount, they also look it. It's the main reason illegal artists tend to ply their customers with alcohol and drugs -- a stupefied customer doesn't complain about quality.
"I've never been to a tattoo party where there wasn't drinking or smoking -- or both," says Ward.
"Once they start, it's too late for regret," adds Art Porter, who got his first tattoos -- crudely fashioned tigers and knives -- from an unlicensed artist. For years he has covered them up. Now he is paying Folmer to draw professional art over the amateur scribbles.
Paluch keeps busy fixing the tattoos of neighborhood people who venture into the den of a local crack addict, whose tattoo work keeps his pipe filled.
Of course, sterilization isn't always a high priority for junkies, and to share needles with a junkie's friends is to swim in their viral cesspool. "This is a very serious health issue," says an Akron artist known as Little Gypsy. "People doing this [who are] unlicensed and unsanitary are risking people's lives."
It would seem, then, that the city would be doing its best to keep the profession above board. Oddly enough, Cleveland's doing just the opposite: Legal operations are smothered in red tape, while illegal ones are ignored.
Underground artists practice their craft with impunity, even advertising their parties with fliers. Legitimate artists notify authorities, but they rarely hear of a bust. "Everybody complains," says Paluch, "but they don't do anything about it."
"I've given them names and locations," adds Ward. "But those people are still tattooing."
Moreover, illegal tattooing is only a fourth-degree misdemeanor. The culprit can pay the fine and return to business. After all, a citation is much cheaper than getting a professional license and keeping a shop up to code. It has caused some legal tattoo artists to wonder why they even bother doing it the right way.
"Why should I have to take the extra steps to make my shop look as professional and clean as it does when they're going to allow people to tattoo like that for cheaper?" asks Paluch. "It is more worth my time to go underground than to have to sit here and fight City Hall every day."
For all the regulation, shop owners say it does little to ensure safety. When artists renew their licenses, they say, the health department doesn't ask for proof of their blood-born pathogen training. David Vidra, owner of Body Work Productions on Detroit Avenue, offers a full-day course on sterilization, blood-born pathogens, and cross-contamination, but the city only requires artists to take a two-hour Red Cross course, where the instructors may have never set foot in a tattoo parlor. "You get somebody from the Red Cross teaching who just retired as a fire chief," says Vidra. "What's that person's background in the industry?"
Though inspections are frequent, Folmer says his own staff gives the inspectors lessons on what to look for.
Matt Carroll, acting director of the city's Department of Public Health, defends his department, asserting that his instructors have tattoo training and that no permits are handed out without proof of training. The department also responds immediately to tips about illegal artists, says district supervisor Ron Smith. Yet the tips have been few, and without a search warrant, investigators are powerless to bust artists who work out of their homes.
Told of the tattoo community's frustration, Carroll says that a new provision allows artists to buy an annual permit for just $250, relieving the aggravation of daily fees and inspections. But since the permit applies only to shops that meet the adult zoning code, not a single shop in Cleveland actually qualifies.
And unless the regulatory climate improves, Folmer and Paluch both say their shops will be closed before winter.