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Tattoo artist weighs in on recent decision by BOC to prohibit shops in overlay districts
tattoo overlay
Ink & Dagger is owned by Forsyth County resident Russ Abbott and located at 755 Holcomb Bridge Road in Roswell. Photo courtesy Russ Abbott.

While commissioners have continued to discuss removing the “adult-related business” classification for tattoo shops, Forsyth County resident and tattoo artist Russ Abbott said the county was going “one step forward, two steps back” with a recent decision at a regular meeting.

At the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners regular meeting on Thursday, May 5, commissioners voted to amend the unified development code related to tattoo shops, specifically agreeing to prohibit tattoo shops in the remaining overlay districts.

Previously, commissioners have approved prohibiting tattoo shops in the following overlay districts: Castleberry-Bethelview Crossroads in 2007, Ronald Reagan-Union Hill in 2008, Buford Highway in 2016 and Coal Mountain in 2017.

On Thursday, May 5, commissioners voted to prohibit tattoo shops in the Atlanta Highway-McFarland Parkway-Mullinax Road, Peachtree Parkway-Bethelview Road and Campground-Castleberry-Kelly Mill-Pittman-Post-Shiloh Road overlay districts.


Those in favor

Forsyth County resident Kirk Wintersteen spoke in favor of prohibiting tattoo shops in the remaining overlay districts.

“I do support prohibiting the tattoo parlors on the overlays,” Wintersteen said. “Overlays consist of a very small minority of Forsyth County, and we want the overlays to be protected and a little bit upscale so that we protect and enhance the value of our county.”

Wintersteen said there will still be “plenty of other locations for tattoo parlors” in Forsyth County as overlay districts only make up a “small minority” of the county.


Those opposed

Abbott, owner of Ink & Dagger in Roswell, spoke in opposition, saying he believed the most desirable locations for tattoo shops are in overlay districts.

“For me, I’m not really excited to put my tattoo studio in a place that’s not the most exciting commercial real estate that we have here,” Abbott said.

“The most desirable commercial real estate that exists in this county is in those [overlay] districts,” he said.

Abbott also said he was “concerned that by adding yet another exclusion for tattoo studios into our code that we’re kind of going against what was exciting about … finally lifting this ban that has affected so many of us in my industry for so long.”

Rob Ingram, owner of Gold City Tattoo Co. in Dawsonville, said he used to be a Forsyth County resident, but now lives in Dawson County to be closer to his shop.

Ingram said that he raised his children, his wife taught school and his family went to church all in Forsyth County.

“We are people with integrity,” Ingram said. “We do life with the people of this community on a daily basis, whether it be judges, police officers, military …. We are invested in peoples’ lives—the worst part of their life or the best — we see it all.”

“I should not have to worry about where I could open a studio because I’m not welcome in that overlay district,” he said. “I do life in those overlay districts. We eat, we have friends, we go to church.”

Ingram said that limiting where a tattoo shop could open was “wrong” because it limited “the quality of people that are going to open [tattoo shops].”

“The people that you want in your county are people like us, people like me that want to do it right,” Ingram said.

Ingram said that commissioners should want people like him and Abbott, who he said was one of the “best tattooist in the world,” to open shops in the county. And with the high caliber of artistry and clients that he and Abbott accrue, he did not think it was fair to be prohibited from nice commercial real estate in the county.

tattoo overlay
Tattoo shop owner Russ Abbott stands in front of the space in Vickery Village that he hopes to someday lease for a new tattoo studio in Forsyth County. Photo courtesy Russ Abbott.


District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson began discussion by saying that she believed prohibiting tattoo shops in the remaining overlay districts was “a little bit of putting the cart before the horse.”

At the last work session, Semanson and District 4’s Cindy Jones Mills agreed to work together to investigate other cities and counties that allow tattoo shops to use as inspiration for possible conditional use permit parameters.

“To me, the guardrails around this in terms of a CUP provide just as much protection for a district commissioner to be able to dictate whether or not a prospective location is or is not appropriate,” Semanson said. “I don’t see the need to make a blanket prohibition on a business type when there’s a CUP process that goes with that.”

“I don’t see the need to make a blanket prohibition on a business type when there’s a CUP process that goes with that,” she said.

Semanson said she was personally opposed to approving the prohibition of tattoo shops in the remaining overlays before she and Mills had fleshed out potential language for a CUP.

Mills said she was “confused” because she was also under the impression that she and Semanson were going to be meeting about potential CUP parameters.

Semanson also explained that overlay districts are supposed to reflect different character areas of the county, and they are not all supposed to be the same.

By making a “blanket decision,” she said commissioners would be making a unified decision over something that is not supposed to be uniform.

“By saying all overlays include this element is kind of weird,” Semanson said.

District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent said, while the overlay districts up for consideration were mostly in his area, they did not cover “the majority of my district.”

“They do not cover probably even 10% of the county at best,” Levent said.

Levent also called Semanson a “hypocrite,” saying that she had an overlay district in her own District 5 in which tattoo shops were prohibited.

“The most adamant initiative you’re ever on is tattoo parlors in my district,” Levent said. “What is going on here?”

After discussion, commissioners voted to approve prohibiting tattoo shops in the remaining three overlay districts with a 4-1 vote with Semanson opposed.

Abbott’s takeaway

After the meeting on May 5, Forsyth County News reached out to Abbott to hear his opinion on the commissioners’ decision to prohibit tattoo shops in the remaining three overlay districts in Forsyth County.

“From what I can tell,” Abbott said, “it appears that all the major corridors of commerce that exist in Forsyth County … if it’s not in the city of Cumming, it’s in an overlay district.”

“It adds another layer of complication to the process,” he said. “This is a preemptive move.”

Abbott said he was pleased to see commissioners “speaking generally [positively]” about removing the classification of tattoo shops as “adult-related businesses,” however, he said that the decision passed on Thursday, May 5, felt like the county was going “one step forward, two steps back.”

“Forsyth County was heading in a direction that I viewed as positive, but now it’s slowed down a bit,” Abbott said. “But it’s not the end of high-end tattoo studios in the county. It’s just going to be a lot longer while we find a way to get through the red tape.”

From his perspective as a tattoo shop owner, Abbott said finding a location for a shop that is “visually appealing” is key.

He said tattooing is “an all-day experience for a customer,” and he would want to open a studio in a place near other attractions, so the customer feels comfortable, especially if they travel from out of town or out of state.

Abbott said an aesthetically pleasing location also provides “an environment that attracts great tattoo artists.”

“I have to make a pitch to them that they should relocate from wherever they happen to live and move their families and raise their kids in these schools,” Abbott said.

Abbott said he could easily make a pitch for Forsyth County Schools, access to Lake Lanier and proximity to the airport, but he would have a harder time making a pitch for a reputable tattoo artist to join his team if his studio was “segregated, if you will, into the darkest depths of the warehouse districts of the county.”

“It doesn’t feel like a place that’s competing with the alternatives,” Abbott said.

But while Abbott was opposed to the decision commissioners made to prohibit tattoo shops in the three remaining overlay districts, he said he was still hopeful for the future of tattooing in Forsyth County.

“Will there be great tattoo shops in Forsyth County in 2024?” Abbott said. “I hope so.”