Tattoo artist challenges city's ban
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — A tiny spade, like a black teardrop, is etched on the skin under Johnny Anderson's right eye. It's a tattooed salute to the World War II soldiers of Easy Company who he says wore the symbol on playing cards tucked into their helmets as amulets while fighting to liberate Nazi-occupied France.
The spade joins a human canvas of skin-deep statements about Anderson's politics, faith and values. His body is covered with images of snakes, eagles, Christian iconography and assorted Americana, in what he regards as an individual's most ardent and enduring form of expression.
But one man's flesh-bound free speech is another's idea of unhealthful mutilation and underclass war paint. In the city of Hermosa Beach and other upscale California oceanfront communities, tattooing is effectively banned for what city officials say is a risk to the public's health, safety and welfare.
Anderson, owner of the Yer Cheat'n Heart tattoo parlor in Gardena, said he thinks his store is in a seedy neighborhood and he sought to move to a vacant storefront in Hermosa Beach in 2006. His request to open a parlor there was denied on grounds that zoning laws don't allow tattooing anywhere in the city.
Anderson sued in federal court in Los Angeles, alleging suppression of his First Amendment right to impart artistic expression on customers' bodies.
The tattoo artist lost the first round of his legal challenge in 2008, when a federal judge deemed tattooing "not sufficiently imbued with elements of communication" to qualify as constitutionally protected speech.
Anderson took his case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this month, and some constitutional law scholars predict the outcome could be different in what would be the first — and potentially precedent-setting — federal appellate decision on whether the tattoo artist is engaged in First Amendment-protected activity when designing and applying custom tattoos.
Anderson, 33, conducts a brisk business at his six-chair salon, where customers pay $150 an hour for his services. But he would prefer to be closer to his home in Redondo Beach and better positioned to serve walk-in traffic from the beachfront.
"They believe that it's going to bring the wrong element into their town — the undesirables, so to speak," Anderson said of what he perceives is the beach communities' fear of an invasion of ex-cons and bikers. "But that's just such an outdated way of thinking. Everybody gets tattoos these days."
Although Hermosa Beach and other cities don't specifically ban tattooing, their zoning laws don't recognize it as a permissible use.
Anderson's attorney, Robert C. Moest, likens the Hermosa Beach ban on tattooing to the banning of printing presses. The messages resulting from both are clearly forms of communication, he said.
Hermosa Beach officials argue in court papers that Anderson isn't engaged in expression but "merely providing a service." The city also contends that tattooing poses health risks, creates "aesthetic concerns," generates little tax revenue and would impose a financial burden on the city to provide adequate inspection and regulation.