Saugus citizens rally behind tattoo artist, swaying selectmen to support special permit
Tattoo artist Antonio Moura De Jesus faced a major obstacle when Board of Selectmen Vice Chair Debra Panetta recused herself from a vote on his request for a Special Permit (S-2) to open a tattoo parlor on Hamilton Street. At that point in Wednesday night’s meeting (March 29), De Jesus needed all four of the remaining selectmen votes, or risk seeing his project fail. Selectman Michael Serino, who seemed to oppose the Hamilton Street location, loomed as the potential spoiler.
But the citizens of Saugus had already rolled out the welcome mat for De Jesus, calling on selectmen to do the right thing and listen to the overwhelming public support for the 49-year-old Brazil native. Julie Mazzola Cicolini – the wife of Selectman Jeffrey Cicolini – took a local social media poll of Saugus parents and found that 320 of 323 respondents supported a tattoo establishment at 28 Hamilton St., a stand-alone building next to the 7-11 and directly across the street from the Public Safety Building. A four-day petition drive organized by Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member Joseph Vecchione obtained 447 signatures of Saugus residents.
When it came time to vote, it was clear that Serino had changed his mind about the location, based on the outpouring of public support for De Jesus. “The wishes of voters in town are very important to me,” Serino said.
Not a single citizen of the dozen residents who spoke at the lectern expressed opposition to the S-2 permit. Selectmen didn’t receive any negative feedback about the location from town officials either.
“Regardless of how this ends up tonight, your voice was heard,” Selectman Jeffrey Cicolini told De Jesus before public comment commenced.
“It’s nice to see Saugus residents stand up for what they believe in and what they think is right,” he said.
Cicolini called it “truly remarkable” the way residents in the community had rallied around De Jesus, a Saugus newcomer who wants to operate his own tattoo parlor in his town. “Having a Saugonian be willing to invest in his own community shows something,” Cicolini said.
Diane Vecchione, mother of Town Meeting Member Vecchione, said she doesn’t have a tattoo, but loves to look at them. “He’s an artist. He’s a good man … I feel in love with you,” she told De Jesus, embracing him with a hug as she expressed her appreciation for his art and livelihood.
“He just wants to have a dream. My heart is broken for this guy,” Mrs. Vecchione said.
Sid Ou, a 23-year-old tattoo artist who worked with De Jesus for several years at The Kingdom Tattoo Co. in Danvers, came all the way down from Plaistow, N.H., to express support for his friend and coworker. “I’ve never seen anyone love his craft as much as him,” Ou told selectmen.
A Saugus resident who works as a court-appointed child advocate said she has a tattoo to honor her 19-year-old nephew “who got killed serving his country.”
Robin, a 72-year-old grandmother with two tattoos, said she is very proud of them. She stressed the town needs businesses to fill the empty storefronts, and a business that offers tattoos is invaluable to women who have a mastectomy and “cover that scar with something beautiful.”
Several speakers talked about the value of tattoos to help people remember their loved ones.
Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member Robert J. Camuso, Sr. said it is admirable that De Jesus is striving to work in the town where he lives. “A negativity tonight will shut possibilities down in the future,” he said. Camuso, like a number of speakers, called attention to the past stigma of tattoo parlors.
“I think it’s time this town grows up,” Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano said. He noted that back in 2011, Saugus selectmen voted 5-0 against a tattoo parlor. Two years later, selectmen voted 3-2 against another proposal.
Cogliano said the town has been behind the times when it comes to tattoo parlors. “I have four kids, one [tattoo] for each of them,” Cogliano said.
“I have two on my back for my grandkids,” he said.
School Committee Member Joseph “Dennis” Gould said he wanted to address the town, but as a citizen rather than a town official. He offered Selectman Serino some personal advice regarding his position on tattoos. “I hope you thought about this over the week,” Gould said, referring to some of the criticism that Serino had drawn on social media.
“I hope you opened your mind,” he said.
Serino answered that “all that stuff on Facebook doesn’t bother me at all.” But Serino said before his vote that he is influenced by public opinion on the issues and that it is clear to him that the public supports a tattoo parlor located on Hamilton Street.
After the meeting, De Jesus was visibly happy and relieved with the board’s final vote. “In my mind, I didn’t have a second option,” he said through an interpreter. He said he’s been paying $4,500 a month in rent since November.
He and his wife, Monize Santos Baldi, have been married eight years and left Brazil for America four years ago.
With his S-2 permit in hand, he said, he still has to satisfy other town requirements before opening his tattoo studio to the public. He expects to open in late May.
Early in the meeting, Selectman Corinne Riley called it “mind-boggling” that selectmen had concerns over tattoo parlors. “This is a time that has changed. It’s art and it means something to people,” Riley said.
“You’re doing it because it’s from your heart and we can see that,” she said.
Selectman Panetta left the meeting early after recusing herself. She had requested a continuance at last week’s meeting, saying she needed to get an opinion from the state Ethics Commission about a potential conflict of interest. She didn’t explain what the potential conflict was.
Erick Sevla, a personal friend who worked during the hearing as an interpreter for De Jesus, said the tattoo artist “uses his art to give people a better life.” People who have lost loved ones are able to find peace and memorialize their friends with tattoo art. De Jesus has plans to use his art to help people with cancer and scars on their bodies, according to Sevla.