ALTON – A public forum Wednesday night at Jacoby Arts Center addressed a debate that has grown far beyond the possible relocation of a tattoo shop.
During a sometimes lively debate, the "What is art?" forum asked a question that, as JAC Board Member Ron Abraham said, "is hard to define."
JAC Board President Denny Scarborough organized the meeting as a way to foster discussion and clarify the art center's stance regarding the issue of Grand Piasa Body Art's request to move to the downtown area.
"The Jacoby Arts Center has not and will not take an official position in this matter as we seek to encourage inclusion and appreciation of all forms of artistic expression," Scarborough said.
The forum was moderated by Lewis and Clark Community College Professor of Art, History and Culture Jim Price. Also on the panel were Hybrid Media artist Eric Gray, Milton Schoolhouse co-owner Meredith Elliott, Abraham, and Grand Piasa Body Art owner Chris Hinkle.
While the discussion was aimed at the definition of art on a wide scale, the underlying issue was whether tattooing should be considered an art form.
"A tattoo is definitely art," Hinkle said. "What is great about a tattoo is that it is personal...it is something that you have with you until you die."
"Art is a reflection of the pride, struggles and ideals of the community that created it," Elliott added. "Our community is a lot of good-hearted, blue collar people with dirt under their fingernails who need an art that expresses that and speaks to them.
"As a community, your art should always be a reflection of the people inside of it."
Elliott also referenced a trend in gentrification, saying that artists moving into a depressed district has the potential to bring more high-end and economically lucrative traffic into the area.
On April 28, the Alton Plan Commission voted not to recommend a zoning change, which would allow Grand Piasa Body Art, currently located at 3094 Homer Adams Parkway, to relocate to 560 East Broadway, by a vote of 4 to 6. Hinkle wishes to move his business to increase foot traffic and expand the business to include an art supply shop.
With a recommendation of denial by the Alton Plan Commission, the issue now goes before the Alton City Council on May 13 and would require a positive vote by at least five council members. If the vote is positive, the issue will return to the Plan Commission for a special-use permit request.
Following the vote, there was an abundance of support through social media for Hinkle, with many questioning the logic of blocking an Alton business from becoming more profitable.
The building in question is in a “C-4 district,” which currently does not allow tattoo shops and body art establishments. If the commission recommended approval, it could open the door for similar businesses to open in C-4 district areas.
Supporters for the move, including Alton Main Street Executive Director Sara McGibany and JMC Design Gallery owner Jeanie Cousley, say the move would bring a younger demographic to an area of Broadway that has the potential to thrive.
Those opposing the move include Dee Kilgo and Orlando (Dit) Panfile from Jacoby Arts Center, who said they had hopes for a more high-end art district downtown, which a tattoo shop would not fit into, and Jeannine Kelly, president of DanMar Enterprises Inc., which owns several buildings in Alton including part of the 600 block of East Broadway across the street.
Abraham says some who are opposed to the move are worried about loitering, an increase in motorcycle traffic, and a possible increase in crime.
"If that zoning is changed, any tattoo shop can set up a shop there," Bill Stoutenborough, a member of the Plan Commission, said at the forum. "I have nothing against Chris or his business...to me, this is a matter of respect for one another's property."
Hinkle says the stigma related to tattoo parlors is incorrect and outdated.
"Here you have a gentleman who is moving his already successful business and is taking on all the risk," Elliott said. "You should let the market decide what it wants."
Scarborough, who signed a petition in support of the move, says those who spoke at the April 28 meeting were not speaking as representatives of JAC, but voicing their own opinions.
"We want to be as inclusive as we can be," Abraham said during the forum. "Who's to say what is and is not art?"
Abraham also said that while as little as a year ago the center was on the verge of closing permanently, it is currently operating in the black.
How to make your voice heard
Anyone who wishes to speak in favor of or against the relocation of Hinkle’s business may do so at the City Council meeting on May 13. Deadline to request permission to speak will be 5 p.m. on May 13.
During the forum, residents also were encouraged to call their alderman and voice their opinion on the issue.