COLUMBIA — A tattoo shop owner looking to expand as her business grows has hit an unexpected roadblock: a restriction quietly adopted by the city in late 2021.
The city ordinance, passed as part of an overhaul of zoning rules, prevents tattoo shops from being approved to open within 1,000 feet — or about two city blocks — of an existing tattoo parlor.
That rule prevented Stephanie Melora, owner of Southern Cypress Tattoo in Five Points, from adding three new booths across Greene Street from her shop, since that building houses an existing tattoo parlor, plus her main space and another parlor nearby.
On Jan. 17, Melora petitioned the Columbia City Council for an exception that would allow it to expand in Five Points, where it sits on the county board.
“This is my home,” Melora told the council. “These are my people and I want to see my business continue to grow in the community I love and serve.”
The city ordinance, combined with long-standing restrictions on where tattoo businesses can locate imposed by the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control, makes it even more difficult for these businesses to find locations.
Tattoo shops already face strict location restrictions across the state: They cannot be licensed within 1,000 feet of the entrance to a church, city park or playground.
Ophidian Tattoo in the Arcade Mall on Main Street was able to successfully argue that its location was more than 300 meters from the main entrance of the First Baptist Church. Opening is allowed in 2020.
Adding a new exclusion zone around existing parlors means even fewer locations are open to the tattoo industry, even though tattoos have become a more common sight.
Another limiting factor: Many of the national companies that anchor malls impose restrictions on what shops are allowed in the same retail zone, including banning tattoo parlors, said Bobby Balboni, a commercial real estate broker at NAI Columbia.
If there is no formal legal block, landlords are often hesitant to rent to a business.
Finding a space that’s open and free of all restricted spaces will be difficult, especially with the city’s additional restrictions, Balboni said.
“It’s a type of Swiss cheese,” Balboni said. “You have to find a hole.”
The City Council recommended that the Southern Cypress issue be studied by the Economic Development Committee at its next meeting.
Council at-large Howard Duvall said he supports the city’s 1,000-foot limit in general to limit the number of salons in the city, but supports an exception for Melora’s business.
Her business is well run and her presence on the Five Points Association board is proof that it is a benefit to the community, Duvall said.
“She has some good arguments,” he said.
Duvall wonders if the two spaces could be considered one company instead of a new location, since they are across the street from each other.
Melora told The Post and Courier she hopes her appeal will allow her to use the space across Greene Street and add one or two new artists and a new receptionist to her business.
It challenges the old perception that tattooing jobs are dubious or harmful to an area.
Her customers often buy meals at a restaurant around Five Points before getting a tattoo, since it’s a good idea for the customer to have a full stomach, she said.
She has tattooed doctors, lawyers and breast cancer survivors, she said, so she dismisses the stereotype that body art is only for bikers as outdated.
“I’m tattooing your barista who makes your morning bearable with coffee,” Melora said.