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Commission OKs adding tattoo service to existing art gallery, public concerned for neighboring Laguna Tattoo

By SARA HALL

The Planning Commission last week approved adding a tattoo body art service component to an existing art gallery, with the condition that both uses are concurrently maintained and the tattoo stations are limited to two, but not without hearing concern for a neighboring longtime local tattoo shop.

Commissioners voted 3-1 on Wednesday (Nov. 1) in support of a conditional use permit to introduce the new service to Vatican Gallery, located at 618 South Coast Highway (between Legion and Cleo streets). The applicant agreed with both added conditions. Commissioner Steve Goldman was absent.

Most of the public speakers and letters on the item, as well as some comments from commissioners, raised concern that the business is just a few hundred feet from Laguna Tattoo, which has been operating at their shop within that same city block (at 656 South Coast Highway) for more than four decades.

Ultimately, a majority of commissioners agreed they couldn’t manage any potential competition.

Commissioner Jorg Dubin dissented.

“Philosophically, no,” he said during the vote.

When Dubin visited the space on a recent afternoon the gallery was closed, something several public speakers also noted. After the tattoo stations are placed, that leaves very little room to hang art, he pointed out. He’s been in the art business for 50 years and understands what galleries look like and how they operate, he said.

“I feel like what this will ultimately end up being is really more of a tattoo salon/parlor,” Dubin said.

He didn’t disagree with what his fellow commissioners said in terms of the application itself and making the findings for the CUP, Dubin said. He’s also not opposed to another tattoo shop.

“I just have a problem with the location and I can’t get away from that,” Dubin said. “I know that we’ve talked in the past about not getting involved in the competitive nature of business in this town, to let the fair market sort that out. I know that Laguna Tattoo has a lot of support from the community, from people who have used their services over many, many years. I can’t say that I can’t make the findings for the CUP. I just have a problem with the location. I wish it was not a half a block away from an established tattoo parlor.”

The new service at Vatican Gallery is very close proximity to another tattoo business and that is unfortunate, agreed Commission Chair Ken Sadler, but that isn’t part of what they consider while making decisions.

“The issue about competing businesses – it’s a tough one,” he said, “but it’s really not part of our purview. It’s not what we’re supposed to be doing up here when we evaluate any particular application.”

Competition is just part of the world, commented Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin. Each business establishes a niche and a successful business has a group of followers, she said.

“Our business (as the Planning Commission) is not to protect businesses. Our business is to review applications for consistency with all the various general plan requirements and policies,” Whitin clarified.

Commission Chair Pro Tem Steve Kellenberg understands the concern about the competition, he asked staff about whether or not they should base their rationale to include competition from similar neighboring uses, but that doesn’t apply in this area.

“Even though there is some history of Downtown of managing competition among very selected uses that has kind of gone by the wayside and there’s more of a laissez-faire sort of philosophy that we’ve been adopting,” Kellenberg said.

When the commission evaluates this application, it should be strictly based on the findings that staff provided and whether or not the commission agrees with the analysis, said Community Development Director Marc Wiener.

“The city, we’re not allowed to evaluate it based on whether it creates competition for a neighboring business. We don’t have criteria for this part of our commercial district that speaks to capping businesses or looking to achieve a balance of uses. That does apply in the Downtown, or it has previously, (but) not for this location,” he said.

Commission OKs adding tattoo service gallery building

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The South Coast Highway street frontage where Vatican Gallery is located

The property is located in the C-1 zone (Local Business District). The purpose of the LBD zone is to provide for the retail and commercial needs of the city. Although tattoo body art facilities are not a prescribed land use in the C-1 zone, the commission may grant a CUP for uses that it deems to be similar and no more obnoxious or detrimental to the welfare of the neighborhood than any permitted or conditionally permitted use in the zoning district, explained Associate Planner Kate Kazama.

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Whitin also asked about the specific wording of the finding, which states that it has to be “similar and no more obnoxious or detrimental to the welfare of the neighborhood.” That could mean different things, she noted.

“Welfare is not defined. You could say ‘How about the economic welfare of the neighborhood?’ meaning you’re creating, within one block, two competing businesses,” Whitin said.

It’s required language in the city code, Wiener explained. In this context, it pertains to public health and safety, he added.

It is standard language used to exercise certain powers by the city, typically tied to general public health and safety concerns, agreed Assistant City Attorney Alisha Winterswyk.

“Welfare is general, it is not defined,” she noted, “but typically, when we are thinking about those three concepts together, it is in the context of what is appropriate for that community’s overall health, safety and welfare.”

There are five other existing tattoo establishments in Laguna Beach, Whitin noted. While Laguna Tattoo was grandfathered in, the other four had to apply to the city through this exact process with the exact same set of standards, including that they are no more obnoxious than other existing uses, she pointed out.

“We (as the city/Planning Commission) made that finding for the other four businesses and it would be inconsistent for us not to be able to make the same finding for this business,” Whitin said.

Sadler was also on the commission when the other four tattoo shops were approved. At the time, other commissioners, who happened to be in the generation older than himself, had serious concerns about tattoo businesses in general and possible negative impacts. They worried about the “worst case scenarios,” he recalled. But it has not played out like that in any way, he pointed out.

Staff checked and there has not been any nuisance reported related to any of the existing tattoo establishments, Whitin noted. There’s no reason to think that this new service would be any different.

“The idea that tattoo parlors you know are connected to harborside brawls and sailors is in the rear-view mirror,” Whitin said.

According to the submitted floor plan, approximately half of the existing ground floor tenant space would be utilized as an art gallery, reception area and waiting area. The remaining space would offer two procedure areas and one restroom.

Kazama explained that the procedure areas would be delineated by removable partition pony walls that can be removed to allow for the entire tenant space to be utilized as an art gallery when necessary for temporary art exhibitions or events. The second floor is currently occupied by an office use and will not be utilized by the applicant.

Both appointments and walk-in services would be offered, although the business generally anticipates to operate on an appointment basis, Kazama said. According to the applicant, tattoo services would primarily be offered by him and two additional body art practitioners, however visiting tattoo artists would be featured at this location.

During his comments, Vatican Gallery owner Franco Vescovi said that tattoos nowadays are very accepted, and are artistic and detailed. People want to express themselves with intricate designs on their body, he added.

“It’s fine art on the skin,” Vescovi said.

“This business is a little different than a tattoo parlor per se, we’re a gallery,” Vescovi said. “The real reason why we want the permit isn’t to be a full-fledged tattoo studio that is just grabbing walk-ins all day long, we’re an art gallery.”

They host shows and featured artists from around the world, he pointed out.

There might even be times where there will be no tattooing for a week or two, he said.

The typical artist does about five to 10 walk-in tattoos per day, that’s if he/she does not have appointments booked, Vescovi said. They usually have 20% to 50% appointments, he added. It’s also a small space, so only one or two people will be able to get a tattoo at the same time, and those will likely be appointments so they’ll happily send walk-ins to the surrounding shops.

There are more visitors to Laguna Beach than ever before, Vescovi commented. In terms of competition, there are plenty of customers to support existing shops and his gallery adding the service.

“I don’t see us opening conflicting with any other shop that’s around,” Vescovi said.

Their Lake Forest location is close to other shops and they end up funneling a lot of walk-ins to them, agreed Vatican Studios Manager Emily Klinger. They have a great working relationship with their neighboring shops, she added.

There was a similar thought process on the dais.

“Clustering of uses often actually enhance performance. We see that in a lot of different retail uses that having one or two or three in the same area actually creates more of a destination of gravity to the larger market and everybody does better versus competing against and hurting each other,” Kellenberg said. “I’m not sure if that’s the case here or not, but I know that is a phenomenon.”

There’s often a synergy of having like-businesses in close proximity to each other, Whitin agreed.

“This truly might, I think, be a benefit overall to the city and make it more of a kind of a destination for tattoo art,” she said.

Although public comments, both through a handful of in-person speakers and more than a dozen letters submitted to the city, disagreed.

Bryan Griffith, current owner of Laguna Tattoo, said the shop opened in 1982 and has been a longtime contributor to the city’s character and spirit of artistry. He’s done some restoration on it to maintain the aesthetic.

“I believe it keeps alive the extension of the village atmosphere and charm Laguna Beach has become famous for,” Griffith said.

It also serves as a “tattoo art museum,” he added, as it has art designs that haven’t been moved off the walls since first being placed in the 1980s and 1990s. That is something special that people come from all over to see, he said.

Griffith asked for some protection of the shop for its historical value and as recognition of what it adds to the character of Laguna Beach.

He highlighted a goal of the city’s General Plan land use element, which aims to “preserve, enhance and respect the unique, small-scale village character and individual identity of Laguna Beach’s commercial areas.” He also noted the city’s general plan policies that direct preservation of historically significant buildings and protection of the character-defining components of Laguna Beach’s commercial neighborhoods.

“I think my shop falls into that category and to have another shop of any kind right next to it, I think it kind of diminishes that look and feel,” Griffith said.

He reiterated the concerns from others about the new tattoo service so close to Laguna Tattoo.

“I think there’s a threat to the shop posed by this,” Griffith said, economically, as others have pointed out, and historically, which could be lost when he tries to pass it on to the next owner, if they can’t be convinced it’s a viable business option to continue forward. “It will be tough.”

Other public comments (both in-person speakers and letters submitted to the commission) included that the city is already saturated with enough tattoo shops and this new service will be an obnoxious addition to the community. They are a big business that will push out the “little guys,” some speakers worried. The city should protect local artists and small businesses, several argued. Many commenters raised concern that the new service would be too close to Laguna Tattoo, which needs to be preserved.

“There’s a wrong picture being painted here completely,” Vescovi said.

They aren’t a corporation, he said, replying to the public comments, they only have one other location in Lake Forest. The call to protect artists would include him, as he’s been an artist his entire life and more than 30 years tattooing. They aren’t the “McDonald’s of tattoo shops,” he said, responding to a specific comparison from one speaker that was concerned a “big name” behind the business will push out the longtime local artists.

“The last time I checked we were not that and our reputation says different,” Vescovi said.

Most of the public comments have been from Laguna Tattoo clients, Vescovi noted.

“There’s a sense of fear that they’re going to lose customers, but I don’t see that happening,” he said.

Other tattoo studios in Laguna aren’t obnoxious or detrimental, Vescovi pointed out, and so neither will the new service at Vatican Gallery. The comments are based out of fear, he said.

“There’s no relevance to it, it’s just fear for no reason,” he said. “Nothing that’s been said has been warranted, nothing that’s been said is even true. The fears that everyone has, it’s just in their own mind. This isn’t at all what they’re thinking it is.”

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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