BLACK CHAPEL TATTOO
There is a pervasive opinion among progressive-minded Southerners that the communities below the Mason-Dixon line operate culturally about ten to twenty years behind the rest of the country. Add to that an element of alternative lifestyle and sub-culture and you understand some of the obstacles an entrepreneur like Eli Tobias has faced trying to establish his tattoo shop, Black Chapel Tattoo Studio, in Central Florida. Tattoos may have made their way into American mainstream acceptance; knuckle tattoos on bank tellers, naval piercings on billboard models, tattoo parlor reality shows--but opening a tattoo shop in affluent Winter Park,Florida, six miles from downtown Orlando, unhinged local authorities. "One thing I’ve always believed in is that you never give up," Tobias said. "I’ve learned more from failures than successes."
When Tobias opened Black Chapel Tattoo Studio (blackchapeltattooos.com) in 2007, he chose what he thought to be a lucrative location and drew upon 15 years of experience in night club management to make a name for himself in the body modification industry. In its nascent stages, Tobias focused on promoting Black Chapel Tattoo and building a reputation to attract the highest caliber of artists, knowing that success lay in the quality of the product. "What we’ve done from day one, and it was a long road, a lot of effort, a lot of work, is we’ve never compromised on the art," Tobias said. Tobias considers himself like an athlete manager to the artists in his shop, marketing and promoting relentlessly. "I have to say that if I was proud of any sort of business achievement, it would have to be this," Tobias said. "I don’t tattoo, and from an upstart, from nothing, I opened a business that in four and a half years won first place in the Orlando Weekly alongside guys who have been doing this for 20 years." Indeed, winning Best Tattoo Parlor in the Orlando Weekly proved an enormous feat to garner such popularity and respect in such a short period of time. It was, perhaps, this success that brought Black Chapel Tattoo to the attention of the Winter Park city officials.
In March of 2007, the city of Winter Park (a suburb of Orlando, FL) passed a moratorium on tattoo parlors, used car dealerships, and fortune tellers, but Tobias evaded the restriction by transferring an existing business license. "The city of Winter Park let me open, and they have what is truly an illegal moratorium on tattoo studios in their incorporated city area," Tobias said, noting legislation he had researched in other cities regarding similar efforts to shutter what they considered "undesirable" businesses.
Tobias wasn’t the only one conducting research. In December of 2007 a noise complaint of a live-music event organized by Tobias put Black Chapel Tattoo on the radar of local authorities. What ensued was a series of unorthodox efforts on the part of Winter Park police to fine and close down Black Chapel Tattoo: shutting down the shop for an expired occupational license (which the city later acknowledged was a result of a "mailing error"), parking police cars in front of the building, and searching the property grounds at night. The largest point of contention was over a promotional event wherein Tobias gave away free beer to attendees over the age of 21. "In the eyes of the state, I was selling booze along with the tattoos because the two became one once I collected money," Tobias said.
Tobias spoke with a senior officer of the State Beverage Department who explained that giving away alcohol is referred to as a "consideration," a gift, as long as money is not collected for it directly in any form. The Winter Park police found a way to manipulate Tobias’s party as a violation of city code. Winter Park galleries, beauty salons, and even gourmet pet food stores routinely offer alcohol to attract customers.
"Ten-thousand businesses in the state of Florida must be in violation of this statute that [Winter Park police] say I’m in violation of but are only coming down on me, and that is discrimination," Tobias said. Tobias had expanded and opened a second shop in Cocoa Beach, but found static with the authorities there, as well. "I was fighting two cities at one time and driving 60 miles each way to run both studios," Tobias said. When the economy tanked further, Tobias couldn’t afford to keep both shops open and made the decision to close the Cocoa Beach location.
Taking risks in pursuit of a dream and finding serious challenges is the entrepreneur’s eternal dilemma. Hope and the drive to pursue a dream did not come easy for Tobias, who grew up in a broken, impoverished home. "The easiest way to describe it is a poor, young, white boy in a tough world, being angry," Tobias said. Out of high-school, Tobias worked in landscaping but caught a break when he was offered a bartending job at The Edge, a popular club at the height of the rave scene. He worked hard and paid attention, moving to management positions and, eventually, putting everything he had into opening his own bar, The Grotto, in 2002. "I turned 30 when I was doing The Grotto, and I was able to reinvent myself," Tobias said. "I realized how angry of a person I was and how my anger could be mixed in with my motivation. I think maybe I grew up a little bit."
The Grotto years were good times for Tobias, and he worked every day for three years, opening a second bar called Eli’s Crib. But in 2005, the building where Tobias’s bars were located was recouped in a change of ownership and Tobias was forced out. "I woke up one day and it was all just taken away from me," Tobias said.
In 2009, when Black Chapel Tattoo was under fire, Tobias had some luck in his corner. Having anticipated rough times ahead, Tobias held on to profits from the shop. When a better property became available in the heart of downtown Orlando, Tobias jumped at the opportunity. Additionally, Tobias’s fight with the city of Winter Park put Black Chapel Tattoo in the press. "What Winter Park did for me was catapult me to the top of the heap by giving me all this exposure," Tobias said. "You can’t buy this [kind of] advertising."
Tobias’s story is what so many of us hope to achieve for ourselves: take the knocks and learn from them, roll with the fall and build on the momentum. "We got into the tattoo lifestyle long before the trend," Tobias said. "I never thought it would be like this. Today’s trend and today’s society sort of stole an identity that I made for myself 18 years ago. At least for me being such an avid collector [of body art], this was a really good place for me to go. Instead of being lost in the world as just another tattooed [expletive], I’ve at least been able to take the lifestyle as I see it and put it into the industry."
The Black Chapel Studio staff is chock-full of renowned artists, not only for the skin but on canvas as well. When you walk into the highly decorated and eccentric building above a little sub shop on the outskirts of downtown Orlando, the underground and artistic spirit washes over you like a welcome home from an old friend. With the motley crew of body art and piercing specialists (Ken Deft, Alex "Lucky" Calderon, Jason "Gong"Jones, Noah Howell and Mykal Williams) whose combined years of experience reaches over half a decade, you are destined to be in good hands. They all have their own specific style, so whatever you are looking for to express yourself can be done in a way to make you feel confident with your decision. They refuse to use the crutch of many tattoo artists known as"flash". Each tattoo is hand drawn especially for the customers wants and expectations. And with the good humor and friendly atmosphere, you are destined to have a good time as you spend your hours in the tattoo chair.
Tobias just turned 40 and says he sees the light. Physically, he is in the best shape of his life and working toward achieving even higher levels of performance. "I’ve got a virtual empire ready to be built on the internet," Tobias said, and there’s no doubt that he’s got the ingenuity and practical blue-print to back up that vision. Black Chapel is thriving in spite of its set backs, and Tobias’s critics are increasingly out-numbered by his supporters.
"The hardest thing that I’ve ever gone through is usually getting out of bed. Really, finding the motivation to get up and kick more a**," Tobias said. That’s hard to believe about a guy like Tobias who seems to exudes energy and confidence. No one is exempt from fear and doubt, but there is much to be learned from those who barge right through those psychological doors. There’s a reason why Tobias has come back from every grenade he’s been thrown.
Through all of the struggles and hurdles that Tobias and his team of body modification experts have had to overcome, they took those lessons as learning experiences. Now they have ended up on top, and have every plan to stay there. For many people in Central Florida (and the rest of the state in general), Black Chapel Tattoo Studio is the only place they will go to get artwork on their body that will last a lifetime; this includes DStripped Magazine’s own managing editor, Jodi Renee’ Thomas. Eli Tobias (facebook.com/eliastobias) and his crew at Black Chapel have built a name that people know they can trust. So, what are Tobias’ plans for his next tattoo? "Never a dull moment."