When Ted Legendre purchased a nearly 30-year-old tattoo parlor in LaPlace a couple years ago, he had no idea he was buying a business that St. John the Baptist Parish would eventually consider legally akin to a sex shop or strip club.
But when the council changed the parish's zoning rules last year, that’s exactly what happened.
So when Legendre tried to move Tattoos Unlimited from U.S. 51 to a more visible spot in a strip mall on West Airline Highway, he couldn’t get approval to open — even though the parish had given him a green light to renovate the space.
Legendre said the cost of the renovations hit his bank account hard, and at age 53, the former St. Charles Parish Sheriff's Office deputy had no choice but to close the business and move back in with his parents.
The St. John Planning and Zoning Department denied Legendre a permit because any business classified as an “adult use” is not allowed to operate within 1,000 feet of a day care facility — as his would have — or within 1,000 feet of numerous other types of buildings in the parish, including churches, community centers or even residences.
The St. John Parish Council unanimously passed the new law at a meeting in August, effectively banning any “adult use” businesses on the east bank of the parish.
Those businesses are defined as “any establishment consisting of, including, or having the characteristics of any of the following: adult cabaret, adult media store, sex shop, adult theater or tattoo parlor.”
Before that, the parish had no regulations specifically targeting “adult use” businesses, according to Alexandra Gelpi Carter, St. John's planning and zoning director.
The law applies only to new businesses or existing businesses seeking to open at another location, she said.
Legendre hoped to move his shop to a shopping center on West Airline Highway near Cambridge Drive that’s also near a bar and a vape shop.
Legendre doesn't see why a tattoo parlor should be viewed differently from any other business in the parish and said that if he could afford a lawyer, he'd challenge the ordinance's legality.
Robert Moest, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, said that tattooing has been upheld as protected under the First Amendment since a 2010 ruling in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals went his way.
In that case, his client, Johnny Anderson, sued the city of Hermosa Beach, California, after the city passed restrictions that made it extremely difficult for Anderson to open a tattoo parlor.
The appeals court overruled the law, with Judge Jay Bybee saying: “A tattoo itself, the process of tattooing and even the business of tattooing are ... purely expressive activity fully protected by the First Amendment.”
Carter said her department worked with the parish president’s advisory committee and the Parish Council to determine what “adult use” regulations should be.
She said there was no opposition to the recommendations, and minutes from the Aug. 8 council meeting showed no discussion on tattoo parlors but plenty on sex shops and other sexually themed businesses.
“Understanding that St. John is a smaller and very family-oriented and faith-based community, (the planning department) recommended a more conservative approach to these uses when going through the public process,” Carter said, before adding that the inclusion of tattoo parlors as an “adult use” doesn’t imply they’re associated with sex.
But Legendre said it’s a bad rap.
“Pretty much everybody says it’s crazy,” he said. “We have nothing anywhere in the line of being a sex shop or any kind of pornography or, I mean, any kind of sexually oriented stuff going on.”
Those complaints have spilled onto social media, with a “SAVE: Tattoos Unlimited” group calling for the reopening of the business.
Parish Councilman Larry Snyder, who was chairman of the council when the ordinance passed, said the council approved the measure after considering the administration's research and that Legendre should have done more research of his own before dumping his money into relocating the business.
“You can’t just change the law because one person got stuck between two hard places. I mean, if he had did the right thing, he would’ve known,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re not going to revisit it some time in the future.”
Legendre just hopes that time is sooner rather than later.
“I lost my apartment, and I’m living with my parents," he said. "I ain’t got crap.”