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Bill would allow tattoo shops in downtown Towson with some exceptions

Grant Aikin, a full-time member of the National Guard, in Towson, and Deirdre Aikin, a tattoo artist, live to the east of Towson in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood.

For more than 27 years, Deirdre Aikin has worked at tattoo shops in Baltimore and elsewhere along the East Coast because Baltimore County zoning regulations do not allow her to open her own shop closer to home.

Though the couple lives in the city neighborhood in a home purchased while Deirdre Aikin was in graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art, they spend the bulk of their time in Towson, eating lunch downtown almost daily and doing most of their shopping in Towson malls and grocery stores with friends who live in Towson, she said.

The couple plans to move to Towson when Grant Aikin retires, but for the past six years Deirdre Aikin has worked at a shop in Washington, D.C.

“I love those guys [in D.C.] but I’m getting old and it’s time for me to do my own thing,” 47-year-old Deirdre Aikin said. “I would love to be in an area that’s my home.”

Under the Baltimore County Code, tattoo or body-piercing establishments are restricted to areas zoned industrial, meaning for purposes such as manufacturing, along with other adult stores, like massage parlors and adult entertainment businesses.

A bill introduced Feb. 5 by Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, seeks to amend the code, allowing the Aikins to open up shop in a loft-like space, zoned business major, on the west side of York Road on the second floor of the Wells Fargo building, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Business major zones currently may only be used for large-scale commercial businesses, excluding adult stores, according to the Baltimore County government website.

The legislation, which only seeks to change regulations regarding tattoo shops and body-piercing establishments, has been met with some opposition by an umbrella group of neighborhood associations but the Aikins say they hope the bill gets them one step closer to their dream of opening a tattoo shop and art gallery.

“I know what [the concerns] are and it’s based on the perception of [tattoo shops drawing] a low class sort of criminal element or gray area,” Grant Aikin, 47, said. “I’m not saying that doesn’t exist in the world and [that] it doesn’t exist in tattooing, but that’s not what my wife and I are bringing to the table.”

The Aikins shop would be a combination of an art gallery and tattoo shop, which they say would be mostly devoted to gallery space.

Under Marks’ bill, tattoo or body-piercing shops, like the Aikins’ proposed business, could open in downtown Towson’s commercial business zone, around York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, subject to certain conditions and limitations.

According to the specifics of Marks’ bill, the tattoo shop must be located in an above-ground space smaller than 3,000 square feet and opened in combination with an art gallery. The bill is specifically tailored to the Aikins’ shop, but other business owners could potentially open tattoo parlors downtown if they met the same requirements.

The shop must also be more than 500 feet from a principal residence, excluding multifamily dwellings like apartments, and cannot be advertised with a neon sign or anything that uses the word “tattoo.” Operating hours are limited to 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays and 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, according to the bill.

“There are numerous restrictions in the legislation,” Marks said.

A similar bill introduced Feb. 5 by County Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, also seeks to amend the county’s zoning regulations to allow tattoo shops and body-piercing shops in a “business local” zone in the Arbutus Commercial Revitalization District, within 350 feet of I-695, and in an area immediately adjacent to an industrial zone.

Business local zones are those used for small-scale commercial uses, according to the Baltimore County government website.

Marks said the two bills are unrelated, but both reignite the conversation around a decades-old decision by the County Council in the mid-1990s to relegate tattoo parlors to industrial zones, he said. Baltimore County government last amended laws regarding tattoo parlors in 1998.

The Aikins’ proposed tattoo shop and art gallery would be about 80 percent art gallery and 20 percent tattoo shop, according to Grant Aikin.The revenue from the tattooing business is necessary to keep the lights on, he said, adding that he was “absolutely not looking to slip something in on the community.”

The art could be provided by students as a way to give them exposure to the process of curating and exhibiting art, Grant Aikin said.

Still, some residents worry that the shop would become a nuisance.

Mike Ertel, vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said members of that umbrella group are concerned about the bill.

Though the group is not against tattoos per se, Ertel said, they worry about the possibility that a tattoo shop downtown could become a late-night hangout for drunken college students, as Towson is home to Towson University and Goucher College.

“What we really don’t want is tattoo shops that are open all night concurrent with bars,” Ertel said. “That’s where we feel things get out of hand.”

Greater Towson Committee Executive Director Katie Chasney Pinheiro said the pro-business group’s stance on tattoo shops in Towson depends on location.

“It appears as though the owners that are interested in bringing their tattoo shop to Towson [have] the right location in mind …,” Pinheiro said in a Feb. 6 email. “I don’t think you could pick a better spot.”

Deirdre Aikin said she and her husband last attempted to open a tattoo shop in Towson 10 years ago, but the request fell on deaf ears.

Aikin said she has no desire to be open late at night and wants to focus more on making the space an art gallery that happens to have a profitable tattoo shop in the back, she said.

Now that tattoos are more socially acceptable, she said she hopes the conversation will be different.

According to the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of the overall U.S. population has a tattoo but they are more than twice as common among members of Generation X, now ages 38 to 53, and millennials, now 26 to 37.

While 38 percent of millennials and 32 percent of Gen X-ers reported having a tattoo, only 15 percent of baby boomers said the same.

“People have said they don’t want a shop open at 2 in the morning, well, I don’t want a shop open at 2 in the morning,” Deirdre Aikin said. “There’s no good that comes out of that, but I hope I can change their minds about what the tattoo industry is and that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. It’s not like it was in the old days.”

The bill is scheduled to be considered at the council’s Feb. 27 work session. If approved, the legislation would take effect March 19, according to the bill.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Libby Solomon contributed to this story.

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