A tattoo is forever; a tattoo shop is less certain

Rent hike forces Permanent Expressions owner to make new plans
By Ethan Andrews | Dec 21, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Joshua Ard at Permanent Expressions tattoo studio in Belfast. The local artist and small business owner is pulling up roots in the face of a steep rent increase but plans to stick around.

Belfast — When Joshua Ard opened his tattoo studio Permanent Expressions in 2007, he had reasons to think he had found a place he could stay forever, or as long as he needed to. Now facing a significant rent increase, he is planning to move, making him the second commercial tenant of the Masonic Temple building on the way out as the landmark settles under new ownership.

Ard opened the business eight years ago at 80A Main St. The "A" designates a street-level door that opens to a steep set of stairs leading down into a tiny catacomb of a space, painted in reds and blacks and decorated with awards, old country music album covers, signed photos of people he has tattooed and a smattering of sample tattoos, or "flash," which he said have fallen out of fashion as patrons demand unique art or just pull up Pinterest on their phones.

At the foot of the stairs, there's a small lobby. A curtain behind the counter parts to reveal a low, tunnel-like space with mirrors, a swivel chair and a set of metal drawers with tools of the trade. In total, the space is about 250 square feet.

Ard was told the space was once an alleyway beside the larger Masonic Temple, to which it is now attached, and that it was later was covered for coal storage. When, after some resistance, he convinced Alan Fouts, the building's previous owner, to rent it to him, it no longer had a dirt floor, but it was still such an awkward space that he figured no one else would ever be able to use it.

Eight years later, he feels the same way about the space that was "just a hole" when he moved in.

"I'm still renting coal storage in an alleyway in Belfast, Maine," he said.

Ard grew up in Belfast and describes his early life here as ripped from a page of the biker mag Easy Rider. He figures he survived the trials that derailed his friends only by some combination of luck and hard work.

"I hung out with the right type of wrong people and I learned a trade that happens to be artistically driven," he said.

He returned to Belfast at age 23 after a free-flowing traveling apprenticeship to the trade that took him to the West Coast and later to West Africa. He chose Belfast, in part, because he considered it welcoming to the arts, but the city didn't immediately embrace his return.

Before he found his current location, he was turned away from 40 others that didn't want to be involved with a tattoo parlor. He attributes the bad rap on body art to the baby boomers, whose understanding of it, he said, came from glimpses of ink on fathers and uncles tattooed while serving in the military. The same men went crazy for motorcycles when they returned from the war, leading to the close association of tattoos and motorcycle culture, he said.

When he finally landed a space in the Masonic Temple, he was happy enough to be left alone. His mother and grandmother had both worked at a diner on the other side of the building and his great-grandfather worked for a taxi service also based there, so there was a note of destiny about the whole thing. When the building changed hands, he considered asking for a 20-year lease.

More recently, as he's felt pressured to leave, he expressed some resentment that he hadn't attracted more attention in the business community.

"I made a conscious decision to come back to Belfast," he said. "It was during a time that there was a huge outcry that kids went to college and didn't come back to work."

On paper, Ard is everything downtown boosters have been trying to attract — a local kid who came back to his hometown to start a career, a decorated artist and small businessman raising a young family in an aging community. In the post-Walmart years when Belfast's downtown underwent a rapid transformation from half-vacant and marginally seasonal to highly sought-after, though still somewhat marginally seasonal, Ard's business, now the only licensed tattoo studio in the county, quietly became one of the ones that made it.

In January, John Warren, a developer from St. Petersburg, Fla., bought the former Masonic Temple building and has since done extensive repairs, replacing the roof and installing new windows.

When the building changed hands, few if any of the tenants had leases. Bella Books owners Gary Guida and Kim Zahares received notice of eviction earlier this fall after seven years for reasons they say were unclear. At the time, Warren said he was responding to mixed messages from the couple. Meanwhile, other tenants stood by hoping to come to terms. Ard said his rent had increased only $25 in the eight years he had been in the building, so he expected a bump but was surprised when the draft lease arrived.

Warren could not immediately be reached for comment but has previously said he is working with tenants individually on lease terms and is continuing to renovate the building to address deferred maintenance.

Ard asked not to publish the dollar amounts but allowed the The Republican Journal to view figures that showed a proposed increase of 42 percent. Additionally, agreement called for Ard to pay a surcharge for his portion of property taxes — a common clause in commercial leases but new to Ard. Heat, too, had been included, but a plan to replace the boiler with heat pumps, he learned, would eventually leave him paying for his own heat.

Warren later came down in price but Ard said he is now planning to move to a vacant office above Alexia's Pizza. The space's last long-term tenant was another ink-intensive business, the Bangor Daily News.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Michael Corden | Dec 21, 2017 13:11

Must Warren insist on making maximum profit from every square inch of space?  Where is this guy’s flexibility?  Where is his soul?  Clearly not here.

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