There's no good reason for tattoo parlors to be considered akin to strip clubs or sex shops, but that's the situation Louisiana tattoo artist and shop owner Ted Legendre has found himself in. Due to a Puritanical shift in city zoning, Legendre has found himself cash strapped and unable to open the tattoo shop he had nearly finished renovating.
Legendre, a resident of LaPlace, Louisiana, was readying a decades-old tattoo shop for business in St. John the Baptist Parish in 2017. He received approval from the parish to alter the space, and he figured he would receive approval to open, too, given existing law. But when the parish changed its zoning ordinances in August 2017, tattoo shops became classified as "adult use" which presented new hurdles. "They never included tattoo shops in any of their postings on the ordinance," Legendre says. "So no one knew they were included."
When businesses are considered "adult use," it means onerous restrictions are placed on them, such as regulation of their proximity to other businesses. In St. John Parish, they're not allowed to operate within 1,000 feet of a church, community center, or a daycare, as Legendre would have been. But Legendre points out that this rule makes little sense. "I can open a bar 300 feet away from the same daycare." Would they rather have a drunk person "in a 3,500 lb. vehicle running around" or a person with a freshly bandaged tattoo?
The zoning change was passed last year, with the support of several concerned citizens. One La Place resident said at a parish council hearing, according to the public transcript, "I'm totally against bringing in any kind of strip club, or peep show or anything like that. I believe it would be a detriment to our community and [the council should] continue to push forward regulations that would prevent such businesses coming to the parish."
Another resident stated, in reference to permitting adult use businesses, "I don't think this is a place for this kind of thing, it will draw a lot of the pedophiles in the surrounding areas and it will be flooded with crimes and all that."
Director of Planning and Zoning Alexandra Carter initially brought some sense to the table, saying, "We can't outright prohibit adult use establishment, that's illegal it's a violation of the First Amendment." But she continued, "What we can do is…thousand foot buffers from all family-oriented businesses and uses, and require any adult use get a conditional use permit which requires Council approval before locating."
That's true, and parish councils frequently employ such zoning stipulations. But many of the reasons typically offered for zoning out strip clubs—noise, the possibility of children being exposed to sexual behavior, drunkenness—don't apply to tattoo shops. Discomfort is likely grounded in the industry's historical association with society's rejects and rebels, and an "antiquated thought process," according to Legendre.
When Legendre pushed back against his shop's classification during a meeting last month, Carter responded "it's not necessarily obscene, or classified by being sexually explicit" but that adult use businesses "could devalue neighboring properties." She also cited concern about "the health impacts associated with what's going on…and the presence of…needles and those types of things, that these things are typically associated with adult uses."
Legendre reminded city officials that he's bound by Department of Health rules on proper disposal of needles. That made no difference, however, and he remains unable to open. The city did grant him electric and water permits in April, despite the passage of the new zoning rule. "They should not have given me my permits for electric and water if they would not let me open and spend all that money on remodeling," Legendre says.
An inconspicuous shopfront run by a professional artist who is just trying to make a living is not a blight on a community. A tattoo shop is very unlikely to become a haven for pedophiles or a nest of broken needles. But none of those arguments have swayed the parish council.
Nearly all of Legendre's money has been poured into the now-useless renovations, but the artist told the New Orleans Advocate that if he had any money left, he would lawyer up and try to fight.