FEATURE ‌ Permanent Ink 

The first tattoo shop in the city makes a mark

Blu Gorilla
1436 N. Meeting St.
Open every day from noon to 11 p.m. (hours may vary)


Crossing her legs atop the Liberty Bell, wearing green sex-me heels and thigh-high fishnet stockings, a bosomy nameless redhead in a seductive green dress became a part of history last Thursday.

It was 2 p.m. and the health inspector had just given Blu Gorilla permission to pass go, making it the first tattoo parlor to open in Charleston since tattooing was outlawed in this state circa 1976.

On June 17, 2004, Governor Mark Sanford signed an amendment to the South Carolina Code of Laws that made tattooing legal. From there the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) had to establish sanitation codes, and state municipalities took their time establishing zoning ordinances for tattoo parlors, which explains why it's taken two and a half years for the permanent-ink business to hit the Holy City.

To celebrate a year's worth of sorting through legalities and remodeling the shop to meet DHEC requirements, Blu Gorilla co-owner Tim Dennis put on his blue latex gloves and happily inked the scantily clad woman on Chrissy Godley's forearm, the first legal tattoo in Charleston and the second woman to join what Godley wants to become a sleeve of patriotic women.

"It was damn near impossible, but we knew it was a matter of time," Blu Gorilla partner Alyx Baranow says about opening the doors to customers she's been turning away for weeks now.

South Carolina is not an easy state to open tattoo parlors in, Baranow says. There are a lot of regulations to heed, and with the way the law was written, different municipalities are given the freedom to choose whether to allow tattooing in their jurisdictions and where shops can actually operate.

Dennis says he and Baranow lucked out. He talks of friends he's met around town who tried opening shops but were slapped in the face when the city changed zoning on them. The Charleston Regional Business Journal reports that over 200 areas were rezoned shortly after the legalization of tattooing went into effect.

In Charleston a tattoo parlor can operate only in light or heavy industrial zones. These zones are reserved for warehouses, manufacturing, outdoor storage, and things of likeminded bulkiness -- buildings people don't want near their neighborhoods, says Mt. Pleasant city planner Kelly Cousino.

The law also bans tattoo shops from existing 1,000 feet from a church, school, or public playground.

Once a location is scored, tattoo artists must prove they have first aid and CPR certificates. Unlike other states, a tattoo artist in the Palmetto State must also sit through a $300 tattoo infection control and blood-borne pathogens course.

There are dozens of other DHEC requirements, and Dennis and Baranow spent all of their savings remodeling their shop located past the train tracks next to Raih Ice Co., near the strip clubs at 1436 N. Meeting St.

But Blu Gorilla is now legal, and city officials have been supportive of the shop, Dennis says, adding that a lady at the business license office even got excited over writing the word "tattoo."

"It's not even real to me right now," Baranow says. "It's exciting. For the first time since Katrina, I feel like my life's coming back."

Dennis and Baranow are displaced Hurricane Katrina victims. They met in New Orleans five years ago while working together at Art Accent under the direction of Jacci Gresham, the first African-American woman to own a tattoo parlor. Baranow pierced and Dennis tattooed. They fell in love and now they're engaged.

Art Accent was destroyed in Katrina's wrath, along with their home, and Baranow moved home to Minneapolis for a bit. Dennis went back to New Orleans, a city he says is still 95 percent depressed and in ruins.

Choosing not to reopen a shop in the "Sin City" because so many people were cashing in their FEMA checks to open tattoo parlors, the two decided to meet in Myrtle Beach for a week to find a home. After taking a day trip to Charleston and immediately finding a building for rent in a low industrial zone, they decided to Google apartments in the Lowcountry instead -- it kind of reminded them of a cleaner New Orleans.

Dennis says he couldn't imagine living in a city without permanent-ink freedom (even though he hated his first tattoo), and he thinks there's an untapped market in Charleston.

Under state law, a person has to be at least 21 years old to get a tattoo. Eighteen-year-olds need permission from a parent or guardian, and a tattooing facility is not permitted to sell anything but ointment cream. No piercing is allowed, either. It is also illegal in South Carolina to tattoo the face, head, or neck.

There is a $50 minimum sitting fee, but tattoo prices vary depending on the size, location, color, and experience of the artist. If Blu Gorilla makes a profit, Dennis says they'll send back a percentage of it to the New Orleans school system, and he thinks that's pretty good reason for people to stop by his store and get tattooed.

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