Westbrook officials put the squeeze on tattoo artists
By Peter Zinn
Under slightly different circumstances, Jamey Hodgdon would be welcomed with open arms by Maine politicians — maybe even given a tax break.
Concerned about “brain drain,” the exodus of young Mainers leaving for more lucrative opportunities out of state? Here’s a local guy who left Maine to work, learned a valuable skill, then returned home to open a business on Main Street and raise a family.
Been championing the benefits of the “creative economy”? By the art world’s standards, Hodgdon is very successful. He makes hundreds, even thousands of dollars for his finished pieces.
The problem is, Hodgdon is a body artist, a tattooist. And in the mill town of Westbrook, some city leaders think that’s inviting trouble.
In April, the Westbrook City Council passed an ordinance to regulate all new and pre-existing tattoo parlors in the city. Given that Hodgdon’s business, which opened two years ago, is the only tattoo shop in town, and there are no applications pending for new ones, he suspects the new law just might be aimed at him.
A tattoo license can now be denied, suspended or revoked if the license-holder or applicant fails to meet a host of standards. For example, if the shop or its clients “have caused, or are likely to cause, a breach of the peace” or “substantially and adversely affect the peace and quiet of a neighborhood,” the city can take action.
Should the owner fall behind on a property tax bill, a registration fee, the sewer bill or any “other charges associated with the business,” his license is fair game. Commit a felony or a “crime of moral turpitude,” and you’re toast.
“I feel like the City Council has been against me from the beginning, and I can’t understand why,” said Hodgdon, 35, who has a clean record. “Do you know they make me pay for my own background check? And they’re the ones who make me get it.”
In neighboring Portland, where the phone book lists nine tattoo parlors, there are no city regulations owners must meet above and beyond state health and hygiene codes. (There are dentist offices that don’t look as clean as Hodgdon’s shop, with its electric sanitizing machines and gleaming silver needles.)
But in South Portland, the City Council recently voted to impose a six-month ban on tattoo shops and body-piercing businesses while city officials consider adopting regulations similar to Westbrook’s.
In Westbrook and South Portland, the concern seems to stem from a long-held perception of tattoo parlors as hubs of criminal activity, hangouts for three types of miscreants: bikers, gangs, and biker gangs. That would explain Westbrook’s standards to protect “peace and quiet” — the low buzz of a tattoo needle is nothing compared to the roar of a customer arriving on a Harley.
As tattoo culture becomes increasingly mainstream, those sorts of stereotypes are dying out, though shop owners don’t always help their cause. Hodgdon named his business Death or Glory.
Regardless, “I never equated any seedy activity with Jamey,” said former Westbrook City Councilor Ed Symbol, a Republican who resigned to take a seat on the Westbrook School Committee shortly before the vote on the law. (The Democrat-dominated council passed it 5-2.) “His shop is a studio, certainly not the kind of a place where gang members would be drawn to hang out.”
“The ordinance comes from the former police chief having a hard-on for tattoo parlors,” Symbol said, referring to Paul “Mac” McCarthy, who retired last year after over three decades on the force.
New Chief Bill Baker said he personally has no problem with tattoo parlors. He said his only concern is that the regulations imposed on those whose jobs could potentially put the public at risk are consistent. He offered the example of “a tow-truck driver with a history of assault or theft, who you may not want towing your wife off the highway.”
“I haven’t had a call for service at this business since I’ve been here,” said Baker, who’s been chief since last August.
Independent City Councilor John O’Hara supports the new regulations, but voted against the ordinance because it did not contain an amendment he put forward banning anyone under 18 from entering tattoo parlors, with or without a guardian. (State law already bans minors from getting tattoos.)
That amendment could have really put a crimp in Hodgdon’s operation. Tattoo sessions can last hours, and customers will sometimes bring their kids. Hodgdon’s own six-year-old was expected to arrive with her mom during our interview at his shop. “This is a family business,” Hodgdon said. “Can’t the City Council understand that?”
“Laws are for the two percent of the people who don’t follow them, not the 98 percent who do,” said O’Hara. “We’re worried about the next person that might try to open a shop in Westbrook.”
O’Hara is not fundamentally opposed to tattoos. “If someone wants to do that sort of thing to their body, they’re free to do it,” he said.
Hodgdon grew up in Windham and graduated from Windham High in 1990. He picked up his trade in Austin and returned after 11 years to Westbrook, where his father has worked for the paper mill for almost 30 years.
When rumblings about new regulations began, Hodgdon said his friends were incredulous. “‘But you’re a Mainer,’” he recalled them saying. “‘Why would the town do this to you?’”
Hodgdon knew tattoo culture can be a tough sell, but the Westbrook he returned to wasn’t the same town he knew before. In the last 10 years, the city has begun a transformation. The mill doesn’t smell anymore. Hip restaurants are popping up. The Dana Warp Mill has been remodeled, luring arts groups formerly based in Portland, like the theater company Acorn Productions, and the Bakery Photographic Collective, which got financial help from the city to relocate there.
“What do they think I’m doing here?” Hodgdon said. “On the one hand, they want artists, and on the other hand they want to shut down tattoo parlors. Art this, art that. I don’t have any problems with my landlord. I pay all my bills.”
Death or Glory occupies a corner building on Main Street with three sides of windows. The walls are covered with watercolors of subjects like pirates, women holding snakes, and flaming skulls. Hodgdon did most of the artwork himself, painting on wooden blocks and the backs of skateboards. The atmosphere is bright and colorful — kid-friendly, really (the paintings are no more graphic than the images in a Harry Potter movie).
Watson Atkinson opened Blndsght, a tattoo shop and art gallery in Portland’s Old Port, earlier this year. Like Hodgdon, Atkinson learned his skill out of state and moved to this area with his family to work. He noted that the Westbrook ordinance is less about tattoo safety than character issues. “What about clean needles, cross contamination, hepatitis — those are things that can really hurt people,” he said.
Atkinson moved here from Georgia, where he said similar ordinances had pushed tattooing underground, spawning shady shops that operated without health or hygiene regulation.
Chief Baker isn’t worried that’ll happen in Westbrook. “There’s more to the story if they go underground in these circumstances,” he said.
Inside Death or Glory, a customer named Nicole has arrived. She unfolds a drawing of a tree with the word vida etched into its trunk. Nicole just graduated from nursing school, and Hodgdon was recommended by a mutual friend from Austin.
The tree has thick, billowing leaves, and hanging from one of the branches is a tropical flower that warms the rest of the image. The picture is no bigger than a baseball, sized to go along the back of her shoulder. Hodgdon looks at the tree, compliments the drawing and says it’ll be no problem to make into a tattoo. At least not yet.
Bollard editor Chris Busby contributed reporting to this article. Chief Baker is Busby’s wife’s uncle.