Jul 28, 2014
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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.

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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.

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