On pins, needles in Ocean City over tattoo ban

Dispute: Officials fear that if a business opens, the town's character will erode. The potential owners disagree.

August 16, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- In a town that bills itself as America's family resort, officials are saying "enough already."

Enough with body-piercing shops, enough with music blaring from boardwalk vendors, enough with counterfeit Pokemon merchandise, enough with the first pawnshop, which recently opened on 26th Street.

But most of all, enough with tattoos.

With a long-standing restriction on tattoo parlors apparently in jeopardy, the mayor and Town Council are scrambling to hold the line against what they say is a cumulative assault on the town's cherished wholesome image.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the location of a tattoo parlor. Windchimes Tattoo is in Sussex County, Del., about a mile outside the town of Fenwick Island, Del., which does not allow such businesses. The Sun regrets the error.

The dispute started about a month ago when two Delaware tattoo artists filed an application to share space inside Pit Bull Piercing, a body-piercing shop just off the Boardwalk on Somerset Street -- in the heart of the historic downtown the town is trying to revitalize.

"This is just another avenue for a transient, raunchy element to come to town, and we're not going to have it," says Councilman James Hall. "We don't have used-car lots. We don't have nuclear reactor plants. You're going to see a continuous, all-out struggle to keep these places out."

But Mike Copley and Karen Berres, who are doing booming business at two Delaware locations -- one across the state line from Ocean City in Fenwick Island and another in Laurel -- say the town is reacting to stereotypes.

"We're business people. We're very responsible people. We're not Hell's Angels," Berres says. "This is an art form that goes back centuries. We've done over 3,000 tattoos here in a little over a year [at Fenwick Island] without one complaint."

The partners, whose tattoos run from $40 to $400, insist they've met all the requirements of Ocean City's ordinance, including a provision requiring a doctor's presence whenever tattoos are applied.

The strict rules have kept tattoo artists out since the early 1980s, but Copley and Berres say they have reached an agreement with Dr. Alexander Matas, an emergency care specialist who practices at the 143rd Street Medical Center in north Ocean City.

Matas, who could not be reached to comment, would be at the Pit Bull Piercing shop on weekends -- the only time tattoos would be applied. Tattoos would be applied by artists who work as independent contractors for Copley and Berres, they say.

"We're really at the mercy of the mayor and Town Council," says Berres. "We love Ocean City. We aren't looking to hurt the image. We're trying our best to get along and deal responsibly."

At Berres' Fenwick shop, Eric Wyatt, 27, who is adorned with many tattoos on his arms, legs and neck, says he served a three-year apprenticeship to become a tattoo artist.

Working from one of four cubicles, each equipped with barber chair, rubber gloves, electric needles and various colors of ink, Wyatt says he can handle 10 to 12 clients on a good day at the Fenwick shop, housed in a trailer off Route 54. A sign taped to the mirror advises customers: "Yes, it hurts."

Customers such as Christy and Rob Kimble of Pittsburgh are baffled by the hoopla. Married a month, they vacationed in Ocean City but drove into Delaware so he could get a tattoo -- a Pittsburgh Steelers logo -- on his leg.

"If we could find a tattoo parlor down there, we wouldn't have to drive here," says the 23-year-old bride, who had a flower tattooed on her back when she was in college. "Tattoo places are everywhere now, in the suburbs, in every college town. If they allow body piercing, what's the difference?"

One difference is that body piercing in Ocean City is regulated by the state health department. If a body-piercing shop passes an inspection and is declared sanitary and safe, town officials issue a permit.

"A few years ago, the council looked at an ordinance I drew up to regulate body piercing, but they chose to rely on the health department to handle it," says Ocean City Solicitor Guy Ayers.

Paul Rogers, who runs Pit Bull Piercing, one of about a dozen such businesses that have opened in Ocean City in recent years, says his shop handles 50 to 70 clients a day at prices ranging from $36 to $150, depending on which body part is pierced and the quality of jewelry.

"The Town Council always says we're part of the next bad thing to come along, but that's ridiculous," Rogers says. "Piercing and tattooing are one and the same, as far as I'm concerned, and I want it in my store."

Before any decision is made, town officials say they want to review tattoo ordinances from other states to see whether Ocean City should change its rules. Ayers has researched the issue and will present several options at tonight's council meeting.

"This is really a lightning-rod issue for us, coming on top of the pawnshop, the body piercing, the retailers who are selling counterfeit merchandise," says Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. "I understand that people have constitutional rights, but we have to ask ourselves what kind of a place we want Ocean City to be."

Pub Date: 8/16/99

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