Jason Call had made it. He’s been tattooing for almost six years and appeared in five tattoo magazines, all sold at Barnes & Noble, and was on the cover of one. His clients travel from all over the U.S. to showcase his art on their bodies. He says he books up faster than any other tattoo artist in Texas and usually has only three unscheduled hours available during the year.
He wanted to open Pristine Ink, a by-appointment tattoo studio with an art gallery, at 114 Parkhouse St. in the Design District, next to the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge. Call had worked at Third Eye Gallery, also in the district, and planned to follow a similar format as his former employer, avoiding flashing neon signs. He began leasing a building in the district in October and submitted an application to the city for a specific use permit to begin operating.
But landlords spewing stereotypical fears are threatening his dream to open a tattoo studio in a hip area of Dallas , and he worries that Dallas City Council members will ignore a 12-1 vote by the City Plan Commission in his favor when he appears before the council April 11.
“Unfortunately, there is still a stigma of what some people think tattoo studios are,” Call wrote in a March 23 email to the Dallas Observer. “I have the majority of the property owners on the street that don’t want me in. They think I’m going to bring drugs, sex, crime and guns to the area. Which is crazy. It’s not the '90s.”
Some of the property owners who oppose Call’s studio didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment. Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez, who represents the Design District, also didn't return calls.
Shelley Stevens, who owns several properties in the Design District, wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Dallas’ Sustainable Development and Construction Current Planning Office, “I have purchased these properties in an area that was ‘going clean.’ If I had wanted property in Deep Ellum, Bishop Arts or the like, I would have bought it there. Please ... don’t allow us to slip back into the former ‘red light’ district.”
The red-light district in Dallas was just north of the Old Red Courthouse in the early 1900s. It was an area known as “Frogtown” — probably because of the frogs croaking near the Trinity River — and the “reservation.” Dallas city commissioners designated this area for prostitutes in a 1910 city ordinance, according to Darwin Payne’s Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century.
Another Design District property owner, James Appleton, pointed out in an Oct. 30 letter to Deborah Kay Carpenter, a commissioner with the sustainable development office, that tattoo parlors and the people they attract oppose the city’s goal for the Design District to be “a family friendly multi-use venue.” Appleton also complained that Call wanted to bring other tattoo artists into his business.
“In my opinion, this business will create a dangerous environment,” he wrote.
But tattoos are no longer just for outlaw bikers and prison gangs. People of all ages, classes and racial identities have tattoos. They're particularly popular among the young, arty types who live in and work in the Design District. Your mother might have one. (Of course, there's always a chance your mom's an inmate or biker. No offense intended.)
Most tattoo studios are clean and make safety a priority, and many could be considered art galleries. In fact, Call proposes to open a 2,493-square-foot art studio in the front and a 957-square-foot tattoo studio in the rear of the building.
Lumping tattoo parlors in with red-light districts or tossing Deep Ellum and Bishop Arts into the same category seems a little retrograde, outmoded — old. Dark Age Tattoo Studio has been on the square in Denton for a few years without the appearance of any danger.
Tattoo artists are professionals and take their art seriously. Some even make appearances on reality shows such as Ink Masters and Ink Master: Angels or score their own shows, like London Ink and Bondi Ink Tattoo Crew. Slinging dope doesn’t seem to be on their radar.
Jim Peddy, a Dallas real estate broker, sent a letter of support to David Cossum, the director of planning and development, and pointed out that Call is a highly accomplished artist whose business a few blocks away on Levee Street hasn’t brought the “dangerous environment” that Appelton warns about in his letter.
“Many of those tenants [near his other studio] are not even aware that he is operating a tattoo studio and believe him to be a good neighbor,” Peddy wrote.
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Peddy claims the opposition is based on self-interest. A couple of property owners have tried to purchase the building that Call leased in October.
“After being told that it was not available for sale, [one] began canvassing the street for support to defeat [Call’s specific use permit], using scare tactics of what she envisions will occur,” he wrote.
Call said that when he appeared before plan commissioners in early March, several people showed up to support him, including police officers, firefighters and a pastor. He is also receiving support from several business owners in the Design District.
“There is no reason whatsoever that Jason Call should be prevented from building his tattoo studio/gallery here in the Design District,” Kerry Yates from Colour Collective wrote in a March 26 email to the Observer. “He is [a] true artist, and we would be lucky to have him be a part of our creative scene. The effort to prevent Jason Call from obtaining a certificate of occupancy is bullying at its worst. He is being judged based on his appearance vs. his business acumen and moral values.”