As the Westminster City Council moves closer to banning tattoo parlors from the downtown business district, local practitioners of skin decoration plan to bring Carroll County's first tattoo convention to Westminster late next month.
The council could pass the ban before then. City officials said a zoning amendment should be introduced Jan. 8 and go to public hearing Jan. 22, when it could come up for a vote.
Tattoo parlors would still be permitted in the industrialized business zone along Route 140, and an existing tattoo business downtown would be allowed to stay open, Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said. But such businesses run counter to the city's efforts to retain and revitalize the character of its aging Main Street, city officials have suggested.
"It's not as if they can't exist anywhere in the city," Ferguson said. "We think it's appropriate in some areas and not in others."
Tattoo artists believe their work is stigmatized because the state Health Department doesn't license their parlors, said Polly Hewitt, who has encountered obstacles in trying to reopen her Tattooed Angel business in downtown Westminster. She previously ran Tattooed Angel on Route 27 near Westminster's Town Mall for six years, until she closed in August.
Meanwhile, Hewitt said she is bringing Maryland's first tattoo expo to Martin's Westminster banquet hall Jan. 27 and 28 to promote tattooing as an art form and to push for more stringent state regulations.
At least two jurisdictions have enacted local laws governing tattooing. The Health Departments in Allegany and Worcester counties do license tattoo establishments, and, in Worcester's case, only a doctor can apply a tattoo, said Brenda Roop, the nurse in charge of infection control for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"The reason tattooists and piercers are not licensed is that the General Assembly has not given us the authority to do so," Roop said. "Tattooists and piercers would like guidelines because it keeps the riffraff out. [The riffraff] makes them look bad and gives a bad taste to the whole trade."
But short of a concerted grassroots effort, Roop said the General Assembly would likely avoid getting behind the issue. Westminster has denied Hewitt's Tattooed Angel a permit to relocate to the space she leased in the second story of a building in a residential area.
In late August, Westminster officials had told Hewitt the property, on 58 Pennsylvania Ave., was in a business zone that permitted tattoo parlors. But the state assessment maps incorrectly labeled the site, which was never intended for commercial use, Ferguson said.
"They're just playing games; they're doing whatever they can do," Hewitt said of city officials.
Community activists, such as Pennsylvania Avenue resident Rebekah Orenstein, have also argued that the property in question is inappropriate for business uses. Orenstein said the business would disturb the residential and historic character of her street.
Ferguson said Hewitt could face fines if her business opened without the occupancy permit. He also criticized the "Tattooed Angel" sign she has already posted in the window of the Pennsylvania Avenue building.
For now, Hewitt said she has been holding tattoo parties in homes. She also does piercing and permanent makeup tattoos. Hewitt said her husband, Bob Hewitt, used to apply tattoos in Florida, a state with some of the strictest licensing procedures in the country. Hewitt said such regulations both benefit tattoo artists and protect public health concerns.
The only time the Carroll County Health Department intervenes with tattoo parlors is when they receive a complaint related to infection control, according to Edwin F. Singer, the county's environmental health director. "Since it's not required to be licensed by anybody, it's like any other business," Singer said. "We've struggled ourselves whenever we've had any type of complaint, because they aren't regulated. It becomes a little difficult for us to figure out how to handle these things."