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Garfield tattoo shop goes online to pay for costly renovations

"We had to start the process over again."

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Video by Ashley Murray

Sitting amidst a mix of small businesses and construction projects on Penn Avenue in Garfield, Artisan Tattoo studio stands out because of a banner on its facade.

"Keep Artisan Alive," the sign reads. Jason and Meliora Angst bought the building in 2012 and have been working to rehab it ever since. However, now they find themselves caught up in the costs of renovations and the technicalities of the city's permitting process, with a very short amount of time to rectify both.

"Very simply, we had to ... start the process over again and make this really intense push to come up with the capital to do the rest of the project, which is quite expensive," explains Jason Angst.

With fewer than 15 days left on their "Keep Artisan Alive" Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, the Angsts are hoping to raise nearly $90,000 to bring their building up to code. As of April 12, the campaign had raised nearly $33,000.

"We've gone into overdrive. We are working our butts off," Jason Angst says.

The couple bought the three-story building three years ago, when "it was a shell of bricks," and initially, they say, a city inspector told them their architectural designs were fine.

"About six weeks ago, a new inspector came in and told us that, in fact, we only had six months left [to complete the work] and that a lot of what we had done was not OK," Jason Angst says.

Tim McNulty, spokesman for the City of Pittsburgh, says that the initial inspector retired more than a year ago. The Angsts say the inspector approved work that they now must redo.

"[The inspector] was doing us favors that were not favors that are hurting us now," Meliora Angst says.

McNulty and the shop-owners say that questions from a local newspaper reporter who was writing a feature on Artisan prompted the city to send a new inspector to the building. McNulty says the city issued a fa├žade-renovation permit to Artisan in 2012, and then issued a permit for other renovations in 2014. After that, though, McNulty says, Artisan did not contact the city to have the work approved so that it could receive its occupancy permit.

"The city works with small businesses all the time, and after the initial permits were issued, basically, we were waiting for them to come back and be inspected," McNulty says. "And it just didn't happen."

In February, the city revoked Artisan's permit and cited the Angsts for using the building without an occupancy permit. The couple says a new inspector gave them a temporary occupancy permit, which gives them six months to bring the building up to code.

Among items approved by the initial inspector, according to the Angsts, were first-floor bathrooms that were two inches too small to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"The first inspector had said, 'Two inches, close enough. That's no big deal,'" Meliora Angst says. "The new inspector said no. We had to tear down those bathrooms that we had hand-stenciled and rebuild them two inches bigger."

Jason and Meliora Angst
  • Photo by Ashley Murray
  • Jason and Meliora Angst, of Garfield's Artisan Tattoo

The couple also needs to build a costly three-level, covered fire-escape with a foundation, which will take most of the money they are raising — $62,000. Other costs include $22,000 for two ADA bathrooms in the basement, and $5,200 for an ADA bathroom on the first floor.

The couple also says a piercing shop that was operating on their third floor was immediately "evacuated."

The Angsts say they're frustrated because the actual purpose of their business can't be considered when applying the code.

"They're laws and they make sense in some way, somewhere," Jason says. "They definitely are not situationally lenient."

Take the bathroom renovations. Extensive renovations are required because of the building's potential capacity, Jason Angst says.

"When you take into account the entire square-footage of this place, you could fit in quite a number of people," Jason Angst says. "But if you're here and you look around ... we would never hit that sort of capacity."

The Angsts also say the need for gender-specific bathrooms doesn't make sense in their situation.

"My moral philosophy tells me that every bathroom in here should be unisex, because a lot of our clientele don't even identify with one gender or another," says Meliora Angst.

At press time, McNulty said he was checking to see whether there would ever be situation-specific allowances.

For its part, the city has said that enforcement of building codes is important, and that work has been done to improve the permitting process. Late last year, the department was reconfigured from the Bureau of Building Inspection to the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections.

"As with everything, the city has to balance business needs with safety," McNulty says. "Building inspectors keep lines of communication open to address commercial needs, and PLI is in the midst of making that communication even better. Last year it gave inspectors cell phones and laptops for the first time, and this year is moving toward more online permitting."

Jason and Meliora Angst say they don't want to give up because they invested on Penn Avenue for a reason.

"One of the reasons I invested in this neighborhood is it's a redeveloping area that's centering around the arts," he says. "Art is a very large part of my life, and I also feel that tattoo art is slowly being likened to fine art in this world, and I happen to do both."

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