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Tattoo parlor among town’s increasingly diverse tenants

February 24, 2019

OLD BRIDGE, N.J. (AP) — While Sara Gutierrez waited for her chance to be heard by the Old Bridge Township Zoning Board on a variance to let her open a tattoo parlor, someone in the audience told her, “Yeah, that’s never going to happen.”

Old Bridge’s outdated land use laws strictly control what is, and is not, allowed. The current zoning laws are so strict, “you can open an ice cream shop in town but you can’t sell cookies there,” explained Stephen Mamakas, the township’s economic development officer.

Gutierrez was able to get the variance, and, sitting in the parlor six months after it opened in the fall of 2018, said she understood why people would think Old Bridge was not welcoming of new types of businesses. That is starting to change as the township seeks to create a business-friendly atmosphere and open its arms to more diverse tenants — among them, Gutierrez’s Chakra Tattoos and an axe throwing venue, Bury the Hatchet.

“We’re trying to be more business-friendly, but then our ordinance is over-restrictive when it comes to land use,” Township Planner Veena Sawant explained at a recent Planning Board meeting.

She proposed amendments to the economic development ordinance that would create new definitions for types of land use and make clear what kinds of businesses are prohibited.

“In the past I’ve gotten calls from economic development and the zoning officer asking, ‘What do you think about this?’ because the use doesn’t fit into the permitted use section,” Sawant said at the meeting. “My answer would be that the section itself says, ‘If it’s not listed, it’s not permitted.’”

Gutierrez, an entrepreneur and painter from Jersey City, and her husband, artist and co-owner Maliboo Smiley, are part of the community now. They volunteer with the town’s cultural arts committee, donate tattoo appointments with Smiley to nearby school fundraisers, offer discounts to first responders and create free 3D tattoos of areolas for breast cancer survivors.

“My mother’s a breast cancer survivor,” she said. “That’s something that we want to do more of. It’s cool, and it’s not something everyone does, but for me, it’s our little piece of giving back.”

Facing away from Route 34, Chakra Tattoos stands behind a Dunkin’ Donuts, a tanning salon and a pizzeria.

The walls are light gray with colorful “thank you” notes from past customers written in erasable marker filling the waiting room, where yellow armchairs, a rainbow carpet, Buddha statues and crystals welcome patrons as they wait to get inked.

“Tattoos and life talks,” one note says. “Much love for my artist. — Liv.”

Meanwhile, in a room off to the left where a sign on the door reads “El Jefe,” master artist Smiley’s dark brown and blond dreadlocks are tied back as he tattoos flowers onto a woman’s arm. If there weren’t sketches of tattoos pinned to the wall, it’d be easy to mistake Smiley’s room for one in a doctor’s office. To keep the woman distracted from the pain of the needles, a scary movie plays on a flat-screen TV in the corner.

“People love us here,” Gutierrez said, noting that just after six months of operating in Old Bridge, Chakra is booked for appointments until May. “It’s just the ordinance. I don’t think it was even the (Township) Committee. It’s just how that was the law and they had to abide by it.

“It was a big victory for us to be able to do something more new age in an old school town. The town has definitely embraced us being here.”

Under the township ordinance, tattooing and piercing are still not listed as permitted uses, and if a type of business isn’t listed, it’s not permitted unless a variance is granted, Mamakas said.

“I don’t know if it’ll change,” Gutierrez said. “This is a traditional town. You still have people who give you a look if you walk by them when you have a tattoo. The stigma still stands with some people. But we do charity work and donate a lot of services. We’re trying to change the stigma. We’re parents, we’re people just trying to make a living like everyone else.”

Mamakas said he hopes the town will continue to attract diverse businesses — perhaps in the near future, a microbrewery — which might not necessarily fit the description of what’s permitted for land use.

″(Tattooing) is accepted now, where it might not have been in the past, when people who might have made the law years ago might have said, ‘We don’t want it near a school or a house,’” he said. “But it’s mainstream now.”

Gutierrez shared that sentiment. The most rewarding part of opening Chakra has been feedback from clients, who tell her the shop is different and more modern and welcoming than other shops they’ve been to.

“The industry is very dark and still very rock ‘n’ roll-ish,” she said. “But the clientele has shifted, you know, it’s not just old biker dudes. It’s multicultural and it should be a bright, inclusive place. This is exactly what we wanted.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2TdOnJt

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Information from: NJ.com, http://www.nj.com