- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

NORFOLK (AP) — Approaching Norfolk Naval Station on Hampton Boulevard is a drive past a sea of businesses that cater to the tens of thousands of sailors who are stationed in the city.

Sailors can do their laundry, get a quick bite to eat, buy a used car, even pawn or store their stuff. What they cannot do, steps from the largest naval base in the world, is get a tattoo.

Neither can anyone anywhere else in Norfolk for that matter — at least, not legally.

Once the reputed tattoo capital of the country, Norfolk is now the last major city in the area to cling to a 55-year-old ban on tattoo parlors.

Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Portsmouth have all dropped their bans, in some cases in the face of lawsuits. Instead of waiting for a lawsuit that the city would likely lose, the Norfolk Planning Department has recommended that the City Council lift the ban and allow tattoo parlors back into the city, perhaps by the end of the year.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Norfolk’s East Main Street was world famous for its tattoo parlors, taverns and burlesque palaces.

Tattooing first became popular among sailors who traveled to the South Sea Islands in the 18th and 19th centuries, said Jack Green, public affairs officer for the Naval Historical Center in the District.

Tattoos became especially widespread during World War II, when the Navy’s ranks reached 3 million.

“Tattoos and sailors became linked, but often the sailors got drunk to work up their courage to get a tattoo, so the ports where the tattoo parlors were located came to be seen as mighty seedy places,” said Judith Holland Sarnecki, a tattoo-studying professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

In Norfolk in 1945, there were about a dozen parlors to choose from, and word began to spread that if you needed an eagle or “USN” on your arm, Norfolk was the place to get it.

That Norfolk perished in 1950 when the City Council approved a citywide ban on tattoo parlors. Tattoos were branded unsanitary and generally undesirable, even “vulgar and cannibalistic.”

“Norfolk also wanted to be more than just a stereotypical sailor town,” Mr. Green said.

The anti-tattoo fervor spread.

“In 1950, Norfolk closed. So it moved to Portsmouth. Then Portsmouth closed. It just dominoed through Tidewater in the ‘50s,” said J.D. Crowe, a tattoo artist and owner of Ancient Art Tattoo Studios. “The good stuff went — massage parlors, tattoo parlors — and it stayed that way for 50 years.”

Today, parking garages, high-rise buildings and chain restaurants line East Main Street. There are trees planted in perfect lines along the sidewalk, an ATM on every block, even a Starbucks.

While the old East Main Street was being updated by corporate America, tattooing also gave itself a makeover.

Linked to the military in the ‘50s and bikers in the ‘60s, tattooing underwent a resurgence in the ‘90s that made it more mainstream, especially among women, Miss Sarnecki said.

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