Tattoo Artist Sues to Open Hermosa Shop

Johnny Anderson, who wants to move his business from Gardena, argues that getting inked is a form of self expression and should be protected by the First Amendment.

Johnny Anderson wants to work closer to home. But when the 33-year-old tattoo artist, who grew up in and around Hermosa Beach, tried to move his shop from Gardena to his hometown he was refused.

A federal court ruled against him, but Anderson isn't giving up. The appeal he's filed with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is attracting attention across the country, as a rising number of  upscale communities disallow tattoo parlors.

To Anderson, who lives with his wife and three children in Redondo Beach, getting a tattoo is one of the highest forms of art and expression because it's permanent and can't be taken down like a painting or taken off like a T-shirt.

Hermosa Beach officials say that Anderson does not perform artwork. Instead, he is "providing a service," according to court documents. 

The city prohibits tattoo studios on the grounds that tattooing is a risk to the public's safety and health, it creates "aesthetic concerns" and the city doesn't have the inspectors to monitor the business.

"[The city] thinks it's going to attract the wrong element into their city, the undesirables," Anderson said while stretching skin and outlining a custom-designed tattoo on a client at Yer Cheat'n Heart, the tattoo parlor he runs in Gardena. "Tattoos are not just for sailors and fallen women. The class of people they're worried about can't afford the going rate."

Anderson charges $150 an hour, within the range of industry standard. He said he refuses to tattoo anyone under the age of 18, nor will he honor requests for anything anti-Christ, demonic in nature or racist. Regardless, for some Hermosans, the thought of a tattoo parlor in town doesn't sit well.

"I don't like it," said Joel Davenport, 62, after eating lunch at a picnic table at Pacific Coast Highway and Aviation Boulevard, the site where Anderson had originally intended to move his business.

"You come here to show them off but you get them somewhere else," Davenport said.

A woman at the same intersection said that she doesn't like "the element it brings in."

But Benji Hamlin, 25, who was withdrawing money from an ATM nearby, saw the issue differently.

"The more art, the better," said Hamlin, who does not have a tattoo. "It's 2010. Tattoos should be accepted."

Anderson first tried to move his business to Hermosa Beach in 2006. The Gardena shop is in a dicey neighborhood near the South Vermont Avenue railroad tracks. His clients include upscale professionals, tradesmen, stay-at-home moms and college students. Often after dark, Anderson and his staff need to walk female clients to their cars. He wants to move to a safer location, one that's closer to his house and the beach.

After initially being receptive and directing him to the area near PCH and Aviation, the city then denied the permit, Anderson said.

He responded by filing suit in federal court but lost when the judge called tattoos "symbolic speech." Anderson is hoping his appeal this month will have a different outcome.

"There is no doubt that tattoos are a form of expression, and they certainly can be an art form," said Jean-Paul Jassy, a Los Angeles attorney who has appeared before the Supreme Court on First Amendment issues. "Expressive speech is typically given the highest level of protection under the First Amendment."

Jassy, who is not connected to Anderson's case, added that there are circumstances in which a city could regulate a business involved in certain types of expressive work.

"However, I do not think that there is a constitutional justification that can be reconciled with the First Amendment that would permit a city to ban a business involved with expressive work among consenting adults," he said.

Hermosa officials declined comment until the matter is resolved.

Ed Pilolla May 28, 2010 at 05:36 PM
The city council ultimately decides these issues, including zoning and defending their decisions about restricting certain businesses in court. Hermosa Beach believes it is important to maintain an image that benefits the majority of residents and businesses, which effects property values and the city as a destination for tourism. It's an interesting question, because if a clear majority of Hermosa residents wanted a tattoo studio, I would confidently guess that it would happen. Politicians, especially local politicians, are usually in touch the majority pulse. However, things are changing. The image of the bikers roaming Hermosa in the 60s is fading, but slowly. --Ed Pilolla
Jacqueline Howard May 28, 2010 at 06:08 PM
And, as Anderson said in our video interview, many cities will outright ban the business of tattooing, which he thinks violates one's freedom of expression. But, what I find to be particularly interesting are the different capacities in which the court can view Anderson as a tattoo artist -- being, as either providing a service, which can be (and often is) regulated by the city, or as expressing an art form (such as dance or music, which are protected under the First Amendment).
Ed Pilolla May 28, 2010 at 09:46 PM
I would add that maybe most residents don't mind a tattoo studio within city limits, but voters tend to be older than the population as a whole. And i think this is a generational issue, with the majority of older folks not as comfortable with a tattoo parlor in town as younger adults would be.
smh May 28, 2010 at 11:52 PM
In my view, the most compelling comments made about this issue relate to viewing tatoo work as the right of expression versus being a service. It seems to me that a community has a right to establish community standards, and while those standards can serve as points of disagreement, it is a value in this democracy (federal republic I guess I should say). In addition, community well-being is also a concern. If a mayor (or another duly elected representative) is acting on behalf of this community, (upholding community standards or safety concerns) , the representative could at least consult with the community to determine the community's true feelings, otherwise leave the issue alone. If the representative does have his/her finger on the community pulse...then the choices are abide by the rendered decisions or engage in civil protest.
Lily T. Last September 21, 2010 at 02:17 AM
This is LARGEST bunch of BULL CRAP I have ever heard! The first ammendment does not protect 'free speech' on body Parts! That is preposterous! The first ammendments reads as follows: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances It says: the CONGRESS shall make no law... however the City of City of Hermosa Beach CAN make their own laws. It says: Congress... abridging the freedom of speech (to reduce, diminish, shorten...) of spoken word!... however again, that is CONGRESS... I think the city can do whatever they want! This could potentially bring in a crowd of people into the city that is unfavorable, undesirable & unwanted. I don't even live in Hermosa and it concerns me. I visit there all the time. In the news it says: A tattoo is protected free speech under the First Amendment, no matter where you put it. However, again that is INCORRECT! Free speech is well that SPEECH, spoken words, the other part of the 1st Ammendment says 'press' that is Printed word, but not ON BODY PARTS. That is Newspaper, books, ....get it! I hope so! And the person trying to open the tattoo shop does not even live in Hermosa Beach!!!!


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