Tattoo artist Babak Tabatabai is finding out the hard way that not all art forms are welcome in the burgeoning Broad Avenue Arts District.
In November, Tabatabai, a local artist whose portfolio over the last 13 years includes work on Memphis Grizzlies small forward Rudy Gay and former Memphis police director Larry Godwin, signed a lease to open a tattoo shop and art gallery next door to Three Angels Diner on Broad.
Shortly after signing the lease, he was informed by the Historic Broad Business Association that the district was not zoned to allow tattoo shops.
The district's commercial mixed-use zoning is geared toward small businesses and retail. Besides blocking out tattoo shops, that zoning designation doesn't permit palm readers, psychics, fortune-tellers, and massage parlors.
"When I found this out, I sought a variance for the zoning," Tabatabai said. "It was a $1,500 fee, plus $500 for my architectural engineering firm to put the packet together to present the [request for the variance]."
There was a public hearing held before the Board of Adjustments at City Hall on Wednesday, March 28th in which Tabatabai's zoning variance request was rejected.
Unfortunately, the decision came after Tabatabai spent months remodeling the building.
Since signing the shop's lease, Tabatabai said he's invested nearly $30,000 and lots of man hours into remodeling the shop and refurbishing vintage furnishings from the turn of the 20th century.
The business association voted against supporting Tabatabai's request for a zoning variance days prior to the city council hearing, making it more difficult for the zoning variance to be obtained.
"Their whole deal is that since this building is not truly specific to tattooing, I can use it for other purposes," Tabatabai said. "I can express myself artistically in some other way. They're thinking that I'm going to bring a bad element to the neighborhood, which is exactly the opposite of what I'll be doing."
Tabatabai said his shop would be named Ronin Design and Manufacturing, a name that doesn't provide any indication that tattoos would be offered. Tattoos at his shop would be provided by appointment only, which would eliminate any walk-in traffic.
The shop will also be a gallery for local paintings and sculptures, and Tabatabai will create customized T-shirts and design furniture inside the studio.
Pat Brown, vice president of the business association, said they were reluctant to support a variance for the tattoo shop because they're concerned about setting a precedent to allow other non-permitted businesses to move into the district.
"We by no means question the character of Babak, nor do we question the type of business he's wanting to operate," Brown said. "We support the code. We support the process, and we would like to see the process play out, so that we can learn how to help other businesses in the future. It is not about tattoos. If the business that was coming in was one of the other businesses that were not permitted for our zoning, we would have the same concerns."
Tabatabai filed an appeal to the zoning variance ruling this week, and he hopes to build a groundswell of support to convince the council to give him another shot. Tabatabai started a petition on Change.org, and a hard copy of the petition is circulating as well.
"It makes no sense that an art district would not allow a tattoo studio," Tabatabai said. "I feel completely violated. I'm an artist first, and I've chosen tattoos as my medium."