Licensed to Ink

Photo by Chuck Sundquist/Courtesy
of Long Beach Press-TelegramGetting a business license to run a tattoo parlor in Long Beach is like getting a license to do anything remotely interesting in Long Beach—tough.

Live music? They don't like it; it keeps 'em up. Topless dancin'? Das ist bad. And tattooing is basically verboten, too, thanks to the way the codes are written.

Unless you buy an existing tattoo parlor and carefully get the business license transferred over, tattooists say, there's virtually no way to start slinging ink in the LBC.

That, however, is exactly what Kari Barba did. The owner of Orange County's three Outer Limits tattoo and body-piercing outposts stepped up and bought Bert Grimm's World Famous Tattoo with two silent partners, closing escrow last month at $465,000.

In so doing, she accomplished what seemed virtually impossible—and highly improbable—given the condo development rising around Grimm's recently: Barba saved the business license, transferring it over from former manager Rick Walter.

Grimm's will remain a tattoo parlor—Long Beach's second-to-last surviving remnant of the city's storied Nu-Pike Amusement Park and the only piece of the Pike anywhere near where the Pike used to be.

And it's got a fighting chance at remaining the iconic tattoo landmark Bert Grimm created half a century ago—not because he was the best artist himself (though he was pretty darn good), but because he was smart enough to save his money and surround himself with the finest traditional-style tattoo artists. Thus insulated, his shop outlived the Pike by more than 20 years.

This is kinda heady stuff for the tattoo world—usually all you read about tattoo parlors is about some guy getting beaten and stabbed 246 times in one, for “reasons that remain unclear,” followed by city fathers closing said parlor.

Barba is saving one such shop and is understandably stoked about it.

“Just to save all that history. You try to make your mark in a business,” said Barba, a single mother and Long Beach resident who is pretty world-famous herself. “But no matter what you do, you're just a little piece. That shop is a large piece.”

It's a huge piece. Grimm's, which Barba says opened in 1927 as The Professionals tattoo parlor, is considered the oldest continuously operating tattoo parlor in the U.S. and the second oldest such joint in the world. The names of those who passed through are legendary: Bert Grimm, who bought it in the '50s and renamed it; Colonel Bob Todd; Bob Roberts of Spotlight Tattoo in Hollywood . . . and so on.

None is more legendary than Grimm himself. He was already equal parts skilled tattoo artist, canny businessman and marketing genius when he arrived in Long Beach from the Midwest in the mid-'50s. Renaming The Professionals after himself—branding!—Grimm set to work inking up eager sailor boys from the Seventh Fleet, then stationed in Long Beach.

By the time he retired in the '70s, Grimm had managed to buy up all the tiny storefront units around his tattoo parlor. His business had also outlived the Pike's seven or so other tattoo parlors.

With tattooing's equivalent of King Tut's tomb on her hands, Barba plans to turn part of it into a museum about the shop—once she corrects 50 years of warped linoleum and weird plumbing. It should reopen within a year, city officials and tattoo gods willing.

And if you know part of Grimm's story or have any artifacts from the shop, which former manager Bobby Shaw helped gut in its final days, Barba would appreciate hearing from you.

You might help her tell the tale.

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