Hell's Bells

The gates of purgatory: Leslie Bock's Saint Sabrina's gets banished from Dinkytown
Tony Nelson

Leslie Bock had a simple plan. Her business, Saint Sabrina's Parlor in Purgatory, had been operating successfully in Uptown since it opened in 1993--evolving from a hip clothing outlet into a retail shop catering to customers wanting tattoos and piercings. Last year she employed 30 full-time workers and netted a profit of approximately $100,000 dollars. The logical move, she decided, was to open another shop in an area with a similar demographic.

She began looking for a space in Minneapolis's Dinkytown neighborhood during the summer of 1999. The area near the University of Minnesota's east-bank campus was enjoying an economic boom, so businesses were moving into vacant spaces alongside storied spots such as the Purple Onion coffee shop and Al's Breakfast diner. She eventually took up residence below a Bruegger's Bagels on 14th Avenue Southeast between University Avenue and Fourth Street Southeast, just a few doors down from Ragstock, a used-clothing outlet. "Where does a tattoo and piercing business belong, if not near a college campus?" she remembers thinking at the time.

Bock signed an eight-year lease on September 16, 1999 and opened for business that November. A few days later, on November 12, the Minneapolis City Council approved a major overhaul of the city's zoning codes, which had been in place since 1969. Although the new codes would apply to businesses in Dinkytown, most of the owners, including Bock, assumed that they would be grandfathered.

But this past October Minneapolis health inspectors told Bock she would have to cease and desist tattooing. Within a month the city's zoning inspectors had chimed in with a letter--insisting that since Saint Sabrina's was violating new codes, her only choice was to comply with the rules or lobby the city council for rezoning. The task proved too complicated and expensive, so on December 23 Bock locked the gate on her Dinkytown store, presumably for good.

On a recent afternoon the 34-year-old Bock could be found bustling around the second floor of her Uptown store, her thick blond dreadlocks pulled back atop her head. A sleek black sweatshirt that reads "Life in the Fast Lane" covers her tattooed arms. A few customers peer into jewelry cases filled with several varieties of earrings, nose rings, and tongue studs. The walls are covered with colorful sketches of lions, serpents, flames, and hearts--just a few examples of the tattoos available for purchase. "The piercee's Bill of Rights" and a list of "inside information" for selecting a "quality tattoo shop" hang near the cash register. Both carry the name of the Minnesota Directorate of Piercers and Tattooists, an organization Bock started in the summer of 1999 to combat the stereotype of unsanitary, rough-and-tumble tattoo parlors.

Initially the Uptown store made most of its profits by selling such things as leather skirts, combat boots, and retro knickknacks. But the tattooing and piercing clientele grew. Soon the shop's identity was rooted firmly in the industry that would eventually prop up its Dinkytown counterpart, which grossed nearly $7,000 in its first month. "It wasn't the same store," she says, noting that sales dropped 40 percent after the city forbade tattooing in Dinkytown. "It went from being a cool store to a lame store, and the customers who came for certain things were confused."

Whereas tattooing was once permitted in the Saint Sabrina's campus space (in the past, there had been tattoo parlors in the same building), the new zoning allowed only for "light" neighborhood retail, such as bookstores and antique shops. What's more, tattoo artists in Minneapolis are required to be licensed individually for the parlor at which they're employed. Bock acknowledges that initially her Dinkytown tattooist was licensed for another shop on the other side of campus. She assumed, though, that because her artist was applying for a new license, and because she opened up before the zoning changes, Saint Sabrina's was in the clear. After all, if the new zoning codes were enforced retroactively, many of the fast-food joints, clothing stores, and taverns that line both Fourth Street in Dinkytown and Washington Avenue in Stadium Village would have to be closed. "Dinkytown isn't zoned for half of what's in Dinkytown," she notes.

On November 13, a year after the new zoning was implemented, Bock received a letter from the Minneapolis Zoning Administration Office. It concluded the store owner could not prove her tattoo service was legal before the zoning code was adopted. In other words, her tattooist should have had a license: a catch-22, because the zoning restrictions no longer allowed for licensing.

"You can't grandfather something that hasn't been legally established," says Van Vorhis, the lead zoning inspector for Minneapolis. "The question is, was [Saint Sabrina's] lawfully established? Not if it didn't have the license it needed when the clock struck on November 20 [of 1999]."

Linda Roberts, an inspector with Minneapolis's licensing department, acknowledges that it was an anonymous complaint this past fall that led to trouble for St. Sabrina's. Apparently someone called who didn't like having a tattoo parlor on campus, and the snowball started rolling. While Roberts asserts that Bock should have been aware of the licensing provisions, she also admits that the problem could have been resolved quietly.

Joan Campbell, the city council member whose Second Ward includes Dinkytown, says she recently sought the informal support of other council members to protect Bock's business by amending the new zoning code. "There's a feeling about tattoo parlors from some of my colleagues that's archaic," Campbell explains. "I feel bad about it. My office had no problem with it being there. But there are many absentee landlords in Dinkytown, and it seemed there was not enough support in general."

To get her business up and running in Dinkytown again, Bock would have to collect signatures from two-thirds of the landlords within 100 feet of her store and garner approval votes from nine council members. Campbell believes neither scenario is very likely. But there is support within the neighborhood. A kind of reference letter written on Bock's behalf in November by Daniel Zielske, president of the Dinkytown Business Association, noted that Saint Sabrina's "moved in at a time when vacant store fronts were a major issue facing Dinkytown and they have been a big part of...reenergizing the neighborhood." "We would certainly like to see them be permitted to continue," Zielske concluded.

"They were good for Dinkytown," says Liza Youngscap, owner of Everyday People, a clothing shop near St. Sabrina's gated storefront. "Especially since they were geared toward the college student." Angela Wilda, a 24-year-old undergraduate at the U of M, concurs: "I think it's financially unwise to limit businesses like this. Kids are a hell of a lot more likely to get a tattoo than a Gopher sweatshirt."

The good vibrations are small consolation for Bock, who has already racked up more than $7,000 in legal fees, and with rent, utilities, and parking, must spend about $2,200 a month for an empty store. "What if I can't get out of my lease? Will I have to do something that I'm not passionate about?" she asks, contemplating other business endeavors she'd have to take on. "Or will I have to open a store that competes with Saint Sabrina's?"

In the end, Bock believes there was more to the city's motives than just enforcing a new zoning law. "People treat it like a sex shop or a pawnshop--a category that causes trouble," she says. "But the only time the cops came to the store was to get a free sucker."

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