Tattoo Or Not Tattoo: Aprimer in Chicago Politics by Ramsin Canon

Keith Underwood may lose everything — hundreds of thousands of dollars, his business, and possibly his home. The master tattoo artist, entrepreneur and inventor committed the ultimate sin in today’s Chicago: He challenged the strength of a development group and tried to join a community.

Keith Underwood may as well be a politician. When he walks down Taylor Street on the city’s Near West Side or sits in a bar, half of the people who stroll by give him a friendly wave.

“A lot of people up and down Taylor Street know me now,” he says sheepishly but with some pride. This is because in August of last year, before trying to get a Special Use Variance from the Zoning Appeals Board in order to open a tattoo parlor in the building he and his wife Nicole, a juvenile probation officer, own at 1150 W. Taylor, he took his case to his new neighbors. He rented out a banquet room to educate them on the new, modern tattooing industry, which is a far cry from the seedy red-light district joints of the past. He hired James Banks, nephew of 36th Ward Alderman William J.P. Banks, to represent him. He showed his goodwill by getting petition signatures in support of his enterprise from almost 200 of his neighbors. He put together a PowerPoint presentation illustrating the advantages a tattoo parlor would bring to the Taylor Street commercial district and allaying fears that it would draw an unwanted element of gangbangers and bikers.

He navigated the red tape and neighborhood politics of Chicago like a pro — like a precinct captain, even though he moved to the Chicago area from Poughkeepsie, New York, only in 1996. At just 28 years old, Mr. Underwood has built a name for himself as one of the preeminent tattoo artists in the country. He holds a patent on a cordless tattoo gun that will soon become a godsend to wildlife researchers, ranchers, and pet owners as well as tattoo artists. After buying the building at 1150 W. Taylor in June of 2003, he began planning his campaign to win the zoning variance with the same organizational acumen a good campaign manager would use. Like any craftsman, he wanted to have his own business. “For anybody who’s come up in the trades, you want one day to have your own business. That’s the dream,” he says.

Yet he met fierce resistance from the University Village Association, an un-elected, non-governmental neighborhood association under the direction of the big interests in the area — St. Ignatius College Prep, an elite private school; UIC; RUSH-Presbyterian Hospital; LaSalle Bank; and several real estate and development companies. Among the board members is one Oscar D’Angelo, a clout-heavy, disbarred lawyer and Operation Greylord casualty who is known locally at the “Mayor of Taylor Street.” (Mr. D’Angelo could not be reached for comment.) The UVA serves as an unofficial advisory agency to the City Council on matters affecting the Taylor Street and former Maxwell Street areas. They dominate the area to such an extent that some business owners refused to comment for this article for fear of reprisal. Despite some strong support — and, more importantly, overwhelming indifference — from the residents, the UVA could afford to grind Mr. Underwood’s dreams into the ground because like the community organizations in so many neighborhoods, they are not accountable to anybody. One of the UVA board members was quoted in the Near West Gazette as saying, “You think every time I take a vote, I do a plebiscite?”

For months, Underwood fought for his right to work and live at peace with his neighbors. Suddenly, an anonymous flier appeared all over the area, allegedly from a precinct captain who had served that precinct for eight years (despite the fact that only four years ago, that precinct was in the 42nd Ward), alleging that Mr. Underwood had said he didn’t care if he attracted gang members; that residents could “stay the f— out,” if they don’t like it; the flier painted ridiculous, nightmarish scenarios of gang fights breaking out and referring to the business as “degenerate,” comparing it to a peep show. The flier urged residents to call the alderman and show up at zoning hearing. The Alderman’s office told Underwood there was no precinct captain for that area and had no knowledge of the letter.

“I own the building,” Underwood says. “I want to be a good neighbor. If I own a building, if I live here, why would I want to draw a bad element? Why would I want property values to go down?”

Underwood didn’t fight spitefully, he didn’t spout rhetoric or challenge authorities. He played by the rules and used that most democratic of weapons: persuasion. The local Near West Gazette’s reporter Gail Mansfield covered the story every step of the way, bringing the fight to the attention of many of the area’s residents, including your humble reporter — who subsequently wrote a column for Gapers Block based on that series of articles. The Chicago Flame, UIC’s paper, wrote a strong editorial in support of Underwood in September. But elements of the UVA, dedicated to a vision of a sterile “Little Italy” theme, would not budge. Since 1999, board members of the UVA or the organizations they represent have directly given at least $50,240 — that’s a conservative estimate, excluding many PACs, fundraising events, etc. — to prominent local and state political campaigns. Nearly half of that figure comes from Mr. D’Angelo and his family. The UVA by its nature is a political beast and is hard-wired into City Hall.

Or so they thought. When it was finally time for the Zoning Appeals Board to vote, the UVA brought out a series of witnesses, including a groundskeeper from St. Ignatius College Prep, to testify as to the potential dangers of a tattoo parlor in the area. In support of Underwood were several fellow tattoo artists, a registered nurse who testified as to the extreme care in sanitation Underwood goes through, his immediate neighbors and nearby business owners, the head of the Taylor Street Business and Community Organization, and satisfied customers. Even Alderman Daniel Solis, who originally had promised only a letter of support, showed up in person and gave a 10-minute testimony on Underwood’s behalf. The ZBA voted 3-2 in favor of the permit.

Underwood waited. He approached the UVA’s executive director, Chris Provenzano, and made a peace offering. “I said, ‘No hard feelings, I understand why you did what you did.’ I told him I wanted to work with the UVA, and become a business member of the UVA. So I wrote a check for $150, which they took, and became a member of the UVA.” Finally comfortable, he went ahead and signed a contract to fix up the storefront and build his parlor. He could finally begin to do the job he loved.

Then on April 21, he received a summons and was notified of a suit brought against him, the Zoning Board of Appeals, Underwood’s attorney James Banks, Underwood’s wife Nicole, several of the witnesses who had offered testimony, and the City of Chicago itself. The plaintiffs? Two residents, St. Ignatius College Prep — and their groundskeeper — and the Catholic Bishop of Chicago. They allege that the Zoning Board of Appeals did not follow correct procedure in their hearing, that the dissenting opinion of Joseph J. Spingola, the board’s chairman and a long-time resident of the Taylor Street area, was correct in arguing that there was insufficient proof that Underwood deserved a zoning variance.

Although the University Village Association is not listed as a plaintiff, at least one of the original plaintiffs — since removed — claimed that a representative of the UVA came by to get a signature for the suit. Further, the summons was originally transmitted from a fax machine that had the UVA’s stamp on it. Yet I must reiterate that the University Village Association is not listed as an appellant.

“I thought the UVA considered this a dead issue. [President of the Board] Don Oder said as much — I go in the office and say [to Chris Provenzano], ‘You know what, since I’m a business member, and you’re not listed as an appellant, I’d like the support of the UVA in my business’ time of need.’ He said they already made a decision on me, [and they] decided not to support [me].”

The UVA did not return requests for comment by press time.

The case will go the circuit court to be heard. If the court agrees with this suit, Underwood could stand to lose the $500,000 or so he has invested into buying his building and opening his parlor. He could lose it all and face a crushing debt because the UVA knows what Taylor Street should be, and damn the opinions of the residents — and damn free enterprise. Mr. Underwood urges readers who may live in the vicinity of a tattoo parlor, or who otherwise would like to support his case, to contact him at [email protected]

Mr. Underwood’s case is remarkable only in that he has put up such a spirited fight against the development interests which, in today’s Chicago, have supplanted precinct captain and patronage organizations that once influenced how small business owners and residents behaved socially and politically.

It is important to note that not all of the UVA members have opposed the business and that there are indeed residents and business owners who oppose the opening of a tattoo parlor. But how much is enough? How much can we allow our neighborhoods and communities be dominated by vested, clouted interests that can dictate not only the types of businesses we let in, but perhaps more — perhaps the type of businessperson we let? Or the type of resident? In a city where we have sacrificed real deliberative democracy for efficiency, we must be allowed something. We must at least have control of our own neighborhoods, of the streets we walk every day. Development, progress, investment — these are important things without which our neighborhoods cannot survive. Neighborhoods and communities need groups that can lobby City Hall, that can centralize the wishes and desires of local business owners and residents.

But if we ever forget who really owns our neighborhoods — us — then we are nothing but transients, and pity the Chicagoans who follow us.

(2004-05-05)