Hampden tattoo artist tries to block potential competitor

When Dave Wah introduced himself at the March 13 meeting of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and said he wanted to open a tattoo parlor and art studio overlooking The Avenue, most members were welcoming.

But Joe Lathe-Vitale, owner of an existing tattoo parlor nearby, complained about unfair competition and asked the association to oppose Wah's enterprise.

Now, as Wah seeks a zoning variance to open his business, he is caught up in what association President Benn Ray calls "a tattoo war in Hampden."

"You can't just have a business and then fight off anybody else," Wah said.

That's what Lathe-Vitale is unapologetically trying to do. He said his tattoo parlor, Have Fun Be Lucky, has been the only one on The Avenue since it opened in 2006, and he thinks it's wrong for a competitor to open one so close to him.

"If you have a specialty Italian deli, people go there because it's a specialty Italian deli," he said by way of example. "If you put five of them on the same block, it just doesn't make business sense."

Lathe-Vitale said he might ask the Baltimore City zoning board to deny Wah a variance, even though he, too, needed a variance when he opened. A hearing before the Baltimore City zoning board on Wah's application is set for April 16.

Moreover, Lathe-Vitale wants the business community to stick up for him.

"I think as a merchants' association, their primarily goal should be the well-being of the people in the association, not just to welcome new merchants," he said.

The association plans to discuss the issue in more depth at its next monthly meeting in April, said Ray, owner of Atomic Books and Hampden columnist for the Baltimore Messenger.

So far, though, Lathe-Vitale is not getting much traction with the association, because many merchants believe in a free market system.

Ray said he believes, "It's not the position of the association to take a position on that," and that the association isn't in the business of "protectionism."

And he said most other merchants at the meeting appeared to agree with him.

"The sense I got was that most merchants think we shouldn't be resisting small independent business competition. It's not like this was a big, corporate tattoo chain. Should we try to stop more pizza places from moving into the neighborhood? That doesn't make any sense to me."

The case against another tattoo parlor in town confused merchant Linda Pfleiderer, who attended the meeting.

"I'm not really sure I know why that would be a bad thing," said Pfleiderer, owner of In the Details, a boutique clothing store on The Avenue. She said she is used to having competition from other clothing businesses like hers.

"It's just par for the course," she said. "If someone wants to open, they should be able to open."

"If you're looking for gas, you go to the corner with four gas stations," said Avenue Antiques owner Elissa Strati, who also attended the meeting. She said her sense was that most merchants "are not out to restrain trade."

Wah said his business would be called Stay Humble and would be located above a planned ice cream store in the old Chestnut AID pharmacy building on Chestnut Avenue, overlooking the 800 block of West 36th Street. That is across the street from Lathe-Vitale's tattoo parlor, Have Fun Be Lucky Tattoo, which is located at 820 W. 36th Street.

Wah, 30, of Reisterstown, who currently works for Little Vinnie's, a tattoo parlor in Finksburg, said his 1,500-square-foot space in Hampden would be a destination for existing clients from as far away as North Carolina and that he is booked with appointments five months in advance. He also said his artwork is different than Lathe-Vitale's, so he doesn't see the potential for direct competition.

"I can understand where he's coming from, but it's not like I'm going to have a sign on the street that says, 'Our prices are cheaper than yours.' The product is always going to be different. It's like going to restaurants. The food is going to be different and the atmosphere is going to be different."

Wah said he has spent $28,000 to renovate the space and that he is more interested in Hampden's vibe and being in a prime location than he is in being close to another tattoo parlor. He said he has assured Lathe-Vitale that, "You're not going to see a drop in business."

But Lathe-Vitale is unconvinced. He said he got letters of support from the merchants association and the Hampden Community Council when he opened. He felt, he said, "There was a need in the neighborhood. What need is (Wah) filling that the neighborhood doesn't already have?"

"It's nothing personal," he said of his opposition to Wah. "I know the guy. He does a solid tattoo."

And he said he understands that the free market would dictate whether there is room for both businesses.

"I totally get it," he said. "I don't want to be the boy who cried."

But he added, "I'd be foolish if I didn't fight for what I've established in the past six years."

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