A case of “disaster discrimination”?

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tattoo artists are classified alongside porn shops and payday loan centers. As a college town, Tuscaloosa boasts a number of skilled tattoo artists who specialize in creating designs that allow customers to express themselves with body art. While the ear piercing is considered common currency among the preteen set, tattoos are still associated by some concerned citizens with Armageddon, heroin use, and eminent physical danger. That’s why the Tuscaloosa City Council is trying to eradicate this dangerous practice from within the confines of the city. Or something.

Currently, eight types of businesses are classified under MX Zoning ordinance’s “Restricted Uses” table. Any of these eight types of businesses are prohibited from being two or more to a block face, or from being within 300 feet of each other. The amendment to the zoning ordinance places these eight business types, plus one more, into a new “Prohibited Uses” table, which means they would be banned from opening as a new business or relocating an existing business.
So what are these nine dangerous business type? A few come as no surprise- check cashing enterprises, payday loan enterprises, pawn shops, “sexually-oriented adult use” businesses, and title loan companies are not on anybody’s list of cool neighborhood accessories. But the other four fall under the category of useful – minor vehicle repair shops and hand car washes- or unique local experiences- tattoo and body piercing parlors and tobacco shops.
Original legwork by Todd Boling, owner of The Tattoo Experience.

Todd Boling, owner of The Tattoo Experience, a tattoo parlor located in Alberta City, lost his business in the April 2011 tornado. If the Tuscaloosa City Council has its way, he won’t get that business back- not in Alberta City and not anywhere nearby. Currently, a minor vehicle repair shop, a tattoo/piercing parlor, and a tobacco shop already exist in Alberta City and have been “grandfathered in”. None of the three meet the current aesthetic building codes recently enacted as part of the controversial Tuscaloosa Forward plan, but the fact that they survived the tornado means they are safe to continue business.

Call it “disaster discrimination”- what happens when natural disaster is by city officials as an opportunity to remake a town to their liking. If your business was destroyed by a tornado or flood, then you’d better make sure that the reigning officials consider your line of work to be part of their “vision for the future”. Disaster discrimination plays favorites with people’s lives and compounds personal loss for victims of natural disasters.

The Tattoo Experience wants to relocate and build a brand-spanking new mixed-use building approximately one-half mile northwest of its current location. Todd thinks this new location will “become a panacea for the Alberta Business District” by negating the opportunity for pawn shops, loan sharking shops, and other unsavories to open nearby. In his opinion, “property values should be positively affected by the construction of a nice, new building that meets the stringent new Tuscaloosa Forward codes”.

But Todd’s opinion doesn’t matter as much as that of Kip Tyner, our City Councilman. And Kip has his heart set on making sure that tattoo parlors leave Alberta City. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense to me and I hope he wakes up one morning with a rosier look on life and community. If Tuscaloosa is grow and bloom in a way that encourages and draws creative people, then tattoo parlors like The Tattoo Experience should be welcomed.

Todd sketches an original tattoo design.

The real reason for the attack on Tuscaloosa tattoo parlors lies in unspoken stereotypes and assumptions about body art and its artists. City officials assume that tattoo parlors bring crime or drive down property values- but this assumption is applied in a patently discriminating manner. For example, people may shop at Wal-Mart, but no one in their right mind wants to live near a Wal-Mart for fear that it would diminish the value of their property. Likewise, few families want a nursing home to relocate across the street. Such establishments do not promote neighborhoods and community- they promote traffic and mass consumption (something our City Council seems to favor when vote comes to shove).

Todd shows me how the blackwork lines up with the sketch design.

While the Tuscaloosa City Council cleans up the streets of riff-raff and social refuse, they might also consider closing down or re-zoning the following businesses which have been hot-beds for crimes and misdemeanors during the past year- gas stations, college football games, the Wal-Mart parking lot, Publix parking lots, and nursing homes. If the concern is crime, then football games and tailgating, a primary driver for DUIs and assault events, wouldn’t even take place inside the limits of town. It’s time to confront our prejudices and look at them through the lens of reality- we Southerners do best when we scrap the dated stereotypes and embrace a wide variety of art forms and fashions.