The members of the
Chesterton Board of Zoning Appeals are in agreement: they may have no
tattoos themselves, they’re likely never to get one, but they see no reason
at all why local tattooist Nic Bender shouldn’t set up a parlor of his own
in the strip mall at 1505 S. Calumet Road.
At their meeting
Thursday night, members voted unanimously to grant the owner of the strip
mall--MNB Development Company--a use variance to permit a tattoo parlor in
space at the far west end of the mall, which is also home to Tiger Lily and
Fireflies Fun Zone.
A variance is
required because the Zoning Ordinance’s use table, which hasn’t been updated
in years, doesn’t include tattoo parlor. How many years? As Bender’s
attorney, Greg Babcock, observed, the use table does include
businesses which, in Chesterton at least, have long since gone the way of
rotary phones, cassette tapes, and Ask Jeeves: video store, cinema (both
indoor and outdoor), shoe sales, newsdealer, and billiard room.
Town Engineer Mark
O’Dell emphasized that the use variance granted on Thursday only
allows Bender to operate a tattoo parlor in the mall at 1505 S. Calumet
Road. It isn’t transferable to any other location or to any other tattooist.
Bender, a CHS
graduate whose own two children were born and raised in Chesterton, has been
tattooing for 15 years, mostly at Bluebird Tattoo in Portage but more
recently as a contractor at Speak Easy Tattoo on North Ave. in Chicago. Over
the years he’s tattooed professionals, public officials, musicians,
performers, and athletes, although, Bender told the board, he’s built a
loyal clientele--chiefly women aged 20 to 40--who are happy to follow him
from shop to shop. Bender has also tattooed all over the country, which
means, he said, that he’s been “cross-pollinated” by each state’s specific
Bender noted that
tattoos aren’t spur-of-the-moment doodles but rather the results of a
careful, deliberative process. Any given tattoo begins with a consultation,
at which he and his client discuss the design itself and work through its
complexities. “It’s my job to guide clients to quality, long-lasting
applications,” he said.
American Traditional. His standard rate, depending on the tattoo: $150 to
$250 per hour. The hours of operation at his shop, which he anticipates
opening by the end of August: 12 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by
“I hope eventually
to be a source of pride for the town,” Bender told the board.
Babcock, for his
part, reiterated a point he made at the preliminary hearing in June: tattoos
are a $1.5-billion industry and 38 percent of Americans aged 18-29 have at
least one of them. They are, in short, art, and tattooists are now
recognized as artists. “If you have one tattoo,” Babcock added, “there’s a
pretty good chance you’ll have more than one.”
At a public hearing
which preceded the vote, one person spoke in favor of the petition and one
Greg Hertzlieb, who
back in the day taught creative writing to Bender at CHS, spoke strongly in
favor of the variance. “I’ve watched Nic’s art career grow,” he said. “I
would trust Nic to do a tattoo on me, and I’m fairly choosy. I really think
Nic takes an artisanal approach. Nic knows at what point a good tattoo turns
into something you’re stuck with. I have the utmost confidence in him. I
think he would bring a classy approach.”
on the other hand, strongly opposed the variance. “Tattoos aren’t the image
the Town of Chesterton wants to portray,” she said. “I don’t see a tattoo
parlor helping to contribute to our image of quaint and old-fashioned. I
think the town has other needs.” Nanojlovic also objected on the ground that
the 18-29 demographic probably can’t afford to be spending $150 to $250 per
hour on something like tattoos.
To which Member Kim
Goldak promptly replied, “It’s not our place to spend someone else’s money
or tell them what they can spend their money on.”
Member Jim Kowalski
concurred. “I cannot dictate who should have a tattoo and who not,” he said.
“It’s none of my business.”
The board instead
focused on two different considerations: the age of the clients whom Bender
would be tattooing and sanitation.
Although the State
of Indiana permits youths 16 and older to obtain a tattoo with their
parents’ permission, Bender was adamant that he only tattoos adults. “I
don’t do that demographic,” he said. “Ethically I don’t believe in that.”
On the issue of
sanitation, Bender said that the State of Indiana regulates tattoo parlors
and requires tattooists to be able to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of
blood-borne pathogens. In addition to that, the Porter County Health
Department, in its discretion, may conduct random unannounced inspections of
a tattoo parlor at any time. Finally, Bender is required to keep detailed
logs of his clients, should it be necessary--and it never has been--to track
them down in the future should a health issue arise.
O’Dell added that
the Chesterton Building and Fire departments would be prepared to coordinate
spot inspections of Bender’s parlor as well.
Member Fred Owens,
meanwhile, remarked on the mainstreaming of tattoos. “Times have changed,”
he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago tattoo parlors may have had a poorer
reputation, deserved or not.”
Member Joe Ackerman
made note of the fact that Bender’s landlord, Marilyn Busch--the owner of
MNB Development and the petitioner in this case--has clearly placed her
confidence in Bender and in his venture. “It says a lot that the owner of
Fireflies is the person most on board with this,” he said.