By Yasmine Ferhat
The West Bottoms has been booming in recent years after decades of being widely viewed by the public as a development dead zone.
The American Royal Complex, Hy-Vee Arena, Stockyards Brewing Co. and Lemonad(e) Park have helped transform the area from an abandoned relic of industrialization into a thriving nightlife scene. The redevelopment of the Rock Island Bridge also is gaining momentum.
Last week, they welcomed a new neighbor.
For more than 40 years, Grimm Tattoo has made its home in Westport, both on Main Street and Broadway. The accompanying Bert Grimm Museum opened just last summer right around the corner on 39th Street.
The current owner, Wes Grimm, inherited the business that had been started by his great-grandfather, Bert Grimm.
“By the time he was 14, his whole body was tattooed,” said Wes Grimm of his great-grandfather. “He opened his own shop in Chicago and in 1916, Buffalo Bill walked in and hired him to work at the Wild West Show.”
On April 6, a fire broke out in a building next to the original Grimm Tattoo location. The cause is still unknown.
“I’m not sure anyone knows except the fella next door,” Wes Grimm said. “He just ran over Thursday night and said ‘I got a fire, I need help.’ So we ran over there with fire extinguishers — two of them — but by then it was too late.”
Grimm, alongside the other artists that worked in the shop, stood and watched their building burn for three hours. The majority of stuff inside, including furniture, tattoo equipment and flash tattoo designs had already been incinerated before the fire was out.
“I had just left the museum for the night, right before the fire started,” said Davey Gant, a tattoo artist at Grimm. “I drove back up and watched it burn with everybody else.”
After two months, Wes Grimm was still wiping ash residue off of the surviving flash.
A lot of the flash he had been collecting for 40 years didn’t survive. But thankfully, due to the opening of the museum down the street, most of the valuable Grimm antiquities had already been safely moved and stored over the course of the past year.
“I was heartbroken over the fire,” said Addi Westhoff, a regular Grimm Tattoo customer. “One of the staples of Grimm is the decades of flash they had on the walls, the possibility of losing all that history was just horrifying.”
A GoFundMe was organized after the fire and the community contributed more than $23,000 to support rebuilding the business.
“It was way more than we expected,” Grimm said. “Didn’t quite pay the whole bill by no means, but it was definitely instrumental in our survival.”
Grimm said the night of the fire was no time to cry.
“I looked at that fire and thought: ‘I have 14 people that work here and we’ve got to have a place to go,’” Grimm said. “If it was just me, I wouldn’t be able to do it, but seeing all these people, all together, I thought we can do this.”
Before the fire was even out, he called the building right around the corner that he knew was vacant in order to temporarily occupy the space.
“But after we moved in, we had a lot of difficulties getting the lease,” Grimm continued. “There was no cooperation, so we decided to get out of there.”
Grimm said his decision to move to the West Bottoms was met with resistance, even from some of his closest supporters, but the vast majority were encouraging and hopeful for the new location.
“We rely a lot on walk-in traffic,” he said. “But the people walking around 39th and Broadway are not walk-in clients. It’s the people that Google us and drive from the suburbs, so I think they’re still going to do that here.”
“Honestly, I think it’s great,” Gant said. “We’re sandwiched between a couple different bars and restaurants, and I know we’re real excited to be near the Rock Island Bridge project.”
The new space will combine both the tattoo shop and museum, firmly cementing Grimm’s new home in the West Bottoms.
“I’ll miss the old shop, it’s where I got my first tattoo when I was a kid,” said Jacob Beckloff, one of Grimm Tattoo’s regular customers.
“But I think the West Bottoms will be a perfect cultural fit for the shop. I can already imagine going to get a tattoo from Davey and hopping next door to Lucky Boys to play pool and have a beer.”
“I want to thank all of our supporters. The people that take the time to come to Grimm Tattoo are really what makes this all possible,” Wes Grimm said.
Yasmine Ferhat is a summer reporting intern with Kansas City PBS. She is studying journalism and film at the University of Kansas.
This article first appeared in Flatland.
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