Is ink under the skin the same as ink on top of the skin? 

That was much of the question March 23 when Mound city council members revisited a Buffalo man’s proposal for a tattoo and customs fishing business in the city’s downtown Lost Lake building.

Council ultimately granted Dane Vocelka the similar use designation he needed to relocate there, but it came after two hours’ debate that pitted the city’s legal advisor against the neighboring HOA president—himself an attorney—and went in circles over whether “tattoo” wasn’t the same thing as “body paint.”

The question first arose early last month when Vocelka’s plans to relocate his business on Lost Lake came out of the planning commission with unanimous backing by commissioners but heavy disfavor by members of the Lost Lake Villas Homeowners Association. The Villas are located directly behind and to the west of the retail building.

Vocelka had applied with the city at the end of last year to have his studio designated as similar use to the retail sales and service specifically allowed for in that space. The building currently houses Caribou Coffee and a dry cleaners; a CBD oil shop had recently vacated the western tenant space into which Vocelka is hoping to have his business.

Vocelka’s application first reached council March 9, but council members tabled any decision on it at the request of Villas HOA president Doug Williams, who said he needed more time to outline the HOA’s opposition.

This time, Williams came with all the prep work a practicing attorney can muster.

“We’re the people that have put more time and more money and invested more of our lives into the Harbor redevelopment than anyone else,” said Williams, who said that those who bought into the development just over 15 years ago were promised an “upscale, luxury residential neighborhood.”

A tattoo studio would, he argued, negate that promise. “We don’t want to be the crucible on experimentation on property values.”

Much of Williams’ case rested on the code regulations of neighboring cities, and he provided council with language from the relevant ordinances for Orono, Tonka Bay, Excelsior, Wayzata, Chaska and Eden Prairie, as well more distant metro area cities, arguing that tattoo studios were considered adult establishments and, in that classification, would not be permitted within 200 feet of the Villas per Mound’s own city code.

Independent review by the Laker found that Excelsior does have an ordinance regulating “adult body painting” businesses as adult establishments but that the city also gives  “tattooing” a distinct definition from body painting.

Orono, Tonka Bay, Wayzata and Eden Prairie make no mention of “tattoo” in their city codes. Tonka Bay and Wayzata  regulate “body painting studios” as adult businesses while Orono and Eden Prairie classify these studios  as “sexually oriented businesses.”

Chaska lists neither tattoo studios nor body painting studios but does regulate “adult modeling studios,” defining them in part as having specific “intent of providing sexual stimulation or sexual gratification” through use of body painting.

“There is a policy distinction there,” said Jason Hill, attorney for Kennedy & Graven, Mound’s legal counsel.

Hill said the choice of words in these cities’ codes was carefully made. “There is nothing in these code provisions that identifies tattoo parlors as adult uses, and there is nothing equating tattoo parlors with body painting,” which Hill said would indeed be considered adult-oriented.

It was the same rationale that council members Jason Holt and Phil Velsor, both of whom have served on the city’s planning commission and have previously helped to draft regulations, said they believed was behind Mound’s own ordinance.

“The word ‘tattoo’ has been around a long time. If I think that they meant ‘tattoo,’ they would have put ‘tattoo’ in there,” said Hill.

The tattoo industry is already tightly regulated by state laws that dictate everything from the licensing of practitioners to requiring window treatments and privacy curtains at the individual stations inside a studio.

Vocelka, for his part, was willing to go further and gave his good faith promises to council and Williams that nowhere on his outdoor signage would the word “tattoo” appear.

“I’m looking for a very high end, art gallery appearance,” said Vocelka, who said he also intends to sell apparel and custom fishing rods at his studio. “This is a non-typical tattoo studio—even though it is a tattoo studio, it has to come with class, clean image and professionalism.”

A friendly poll just prior to council’s decision showed that its members were anxious for new business in town but were also conscious of what they perceived as a responsibility owed to Williams and others who had invested in Lost Lake years and years ago.

“I’m really conflicted on this. Because on one side, yes, I want new businesses in town. On the other side, my job I feel is to protect our taxpayers, and they’re saying there is a possibility that their property values could go down,” said council member Paula Larson.

Council member Sherrie Pugh said that she, too, was conflicted but that she saw an “over-exaggerated bias” against the tattoo industry, a comment echoed by Velsor and Mayor Ray Salazar.

“I think the stigma that’s being thrown around out there about this being a drain on property values is far-fetched,” said Velsor. “I think the city of Mound gets a bad rap for being the squasher of businesses, and I think that this is a chance to show that we’re not that.”

“There’s this stigma of tattoos and be it archaic or otherwise, it’s still a feeling and it’s an emotion and I think we’re getting wrapped up there,” said Salazar. Getting a tattoo was no longer “Hell’s Angels” kind of thing, he said.

Despite council’s unanimous decision last Tuesday, Williams said the fight isn’t over yet. “We are reviewing our procedural options for seeking review of this decision,” he wrote in an email to the Laker March 25.

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