Sign of the times

Bonehead Tattoos supporters fight City Hall and win … sort of

Supporters gather outside Bonehead Tattoos before the meeting that questioned when signs become art.

Supporters gather outside Bonehead Tattoos before the meeting that questioned when signs become art.

photo by Larry Dalton

“Sorry, We’re Open,” read the sign in the front window of Bonehead Tattoos, an apt message to be displayed by the latest business to take over the 1950s-designed rectangular building at 2017 I St. For a Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., things were buzzing.

“We’re going to go to City Hall and yell at people!” body piercer Tom Hasch exclaimed into the business’s portable phone. “You have to come!”

Smoking and talking outside, Russ Carter, wearing a business suit, and Justin Groom, in a T-shirt, said they were there to support their friend Troy Agid, owner of Bonehead Tattoos. On the storefront next to them was a public notice about the meeting of the city’s Design Review and Preservation Board, beginning in half an hour.

At issue during that meeting was the huge “Bonehead Tattoo” sign (or is it a mural?) running the full length of the building. According to the Preservation staff, it was about 96 feet too large.

“I think businesses should be given wide latitude,” said Carter. “He’s well within his rights legally. The street is commercial. This just seems like a few snooty people making a problem because there’s nothing better to do, like the people who enforce skateboarding laws.”

Inside, the hum of the tattoo gun mixed with the heated conversation of Agid’s friends. Everyone seemed doubtful that Agid would win his case, but they were there to show their support anyway and try to stick it to the bureaucrats. The sign that Agid had hand-painted for his new shop was in four pieces leaning against a wall in the back storage room.

“I think it’s just because we’re a tattoo shop,” said Hasch, putting into words what is on everyone else’s minds. It is a daily reality for Agid and Bonehead’s artists that tattoo parlors are typically not the most welcome of neighbors.

Agid met opposition to his business for the first time five years ago when he tried to open his first parlor. When he moved a few months ago to his current location, he chose a spot that he thought would let him post a large sign to attract business in an increasingly competitive market.

“I don’t know why they’re bothering me,” Agid said. “Maybe it’s because I’m on their way to work.”

Like a mob marching on City Hall—or in this case, driving to City Hall—Agid’s friends left the shop to go to the hearing down the street.

“Everybody loved the sign. I don’t understand why they’re giving him a problem. Times are sure changing,” said Lori Fisher, a friend of Agid’s, in the car on the way to the hearing.

At the back of the Planning Commission hearing room, Agid met with his attorney while his father, landlord and friends gathered and took their seats. The proceedings began with associate planner Don Smith explaining to the board that Agid’s sign “is not modestly scaled and is out of character with the preservation area.”

Boulevard Park Preservation Area was instituted in 1985 to preserve the historic character of the neighborhoods it includes. To some, it is the only way that Midtown can retain its characteristic Victorian charm, but to the business owners caught in its path, it can seem to be an unnecessary bureaucratic obstacle to business.

Sirlin Photographers, across the street from Bonehead Tattoos, is perhaps a more orthodox establishment, but they had a similar run-in with the preservation staff when they put awnings of differing sizes above their storefront windows.

Agid’s attorney, Kelley Smith, spoke next. “What’s at issue here is the staff’s arbitrary decision. ‘Modestly scaled’ is a subjective determination,” he said. “Let’s face it, if the neighbors don’t want a tattoo parlor in the neighborhood, they could use this to squeeze out business.”

Agid’s neighbors were not really the ones squeezing. Only two showed up to the hearing and spoke, both expressing their concern that Bonehead’s sign disturbed the aesthetic atmosphere of the neighborhood. Their real objection to the sign seemed to be that it would scare away rent-paying tenants.

The other side of the room was filled with Agid’s friends and supporters, enough to merit a comment of surprise from board member Bruce Booher, who said that it was the largest group he had seen show up to a hearing, except for those that involved demolishing buildings.

Several people got up to say that the sign did not offend them, as if it were not already obvious to the board that they were Agid’s buddies. Ironically, the most convincing speaker also got the most negative reaction from the board. Woody Hanson, watercolorist and family friend, spoke at length defending Agid as an artist.

Said Hanson: “Sacramento is proud of our artistic heritage. What if the sign was painted by Norman Rockwell or Georgia O’Keeffe when they were Troy’s age? Would it still be a public eyesore and an affront to community standards?”

Hanson’s oration reached its dramatic apex when he cued Agid’s father to stand up and unfold another sign to the board, this one listing the fifteen principles of design: unity, size, abstraction, etc. He claimed that Agid had used the sign’s exaggerated size to express himself artistically.

Suddenly, the discussion was no longer about Agid’s sign as advertising for his business, but as a rare piece of handcrafted Sacramento public art. Agid became not just the owner of a tattoo shop, but also a budding member of Sacramento’s art community. The sign was a mural, as worthy of preservation as Boulevard Park itself.

Perhaps the allegation that they were interfering with a public art project made the board nervous, where interfering with a tattoo business had not. When it came time to reach a decision, the same staffers who had been rolling their eyes and whispering to each other while Hanson was speaking decided to defend Agid’s newly relabeled artwork.

With the subject changed and distinctions blurred, the board deadlocked with a 3-3 vote. Agid’s supporters began whispering their confusion as board member Christopher Elliot, who had asked Hanson to get to the point several times, urged the room to “look beyond the sign.”

The Design Review Board and staff agreed with Agid to meet again this week and reach a compromise in the size and re-painting of the sign. Staff member Don Smith, who once spearheaded the action to get Agid’s sign removed, now calls the sign a mural and hopes “to get a member of the Arts Council to help with the artwork.”

And who said you can’t fight City Hall?