LEWISTON — Angela Whitely, owner of Lisbon Street's Ink Junkies tattoo parlor, did what she could to comfort Aaron Aldrich after the City Council tabled his licensing appeal.
"They're not seeing you, Aaron," she said Tuesday night. "They're seeing the paper. They're looking at your record, not at who you are."
In fact, it's Aldrich's record, his criminal record, that's keeping him from being the newest tattoo artist at her shop.
It's an extensive record, too: He was convicted of felony robbery in 2003, felony burglary in April 2000 and felony theft in October 2000 — in addition to several misdemeanors for theft, carrying a concealed weapon and other crimes.
Aldrich said he hasn't tried to hide from his past or the things that he's done. He served his time and was released from prison in 2010. Now 35 years old, he blames his past mistakes on drugs.
"I was just going around doing whatever I wanted," he said. "It was just drugs, and it was just stupid. Between 18 and 24 years old was just rough."
But he's changed now. He's cleaned up his act, he's married and he has two stepchildren with a third child on the way. His family lives on South Main Street in New Auburn.
"Ten years ago I was a very different person," he said. "I was a drug addict. I was a thief and an alcoholic. I'm not trying to deny that, but currently I'm a productive citizen of Lewiston and Auburn, and I haven't been in a stitch of trouble."
For Aldrich, much of his future depends on being allowed to work as a tattoo artist in Lewiston. So far, the city has denied his license to practice tattoo art at Whitely's shop.
"I'm just asking for a chance," he told councilors Tuesday. "It does not have to do with tattooing skills, my art skills or my hygiene in the shop. It all has to do with the felonies on my record."
City councilors tabled his appeal Tuesday to check to make sure his state licensing is up to date. They could make a decision at their Dec. 4 meeting.
"I don't mind waiting to make a decision," Councilor Craig Saddlemire said. "In general, I believe in second chances. If you want to work and earn your way, I don't think there's a reason you shouldn't be able to."
City ordinances require a two-step licensing process for tattoo artists: First, they must get the proper certification from the state to show that they are qualified. Then they need a second city license to allow them to practice within city limits.
City Clerk Kathy Montejo said there was no question for staff that Aldrich's license would be denied. His extensive criminal record took the decision out of the staff's hands.
"If he has those convictions, we have to deny it," Montejo said. "There is an appeal mechanism, and that's up to the City Council. They have the authority to overturn that decision if they choose to."
Aldrich doesn't deny any of his past, but said he's trying to move on. It's tough because he can't find a decent-paying regular job.
"I didn't just sit around in there," he said. "I got a welding certificate, and I did a carpentry program. I did all kinds of art programs — anything for knowledge. But none of it does me any good out here because I'm a convicted felon."
That leaves tattooing.
"That's what my family does; it's in my genes," he said. "I'm not trying to become a tattoo artist; it's what I already am."
Aldrich said he has the state license and a bit of experience in Maine. He spent the last summer working at Old Orchard Beach's Ocean Blue.
"I worked for three months, and I had people start coming in to ask for me," he said.
His father, a Massachusetts tattoo artist with his own shop, helped train him. His brother is a tattoo artist as well.
He can't go work with his father at his shop in Massachusetts because he's on probation and can't leave the state.
The Old Orchard Beach job was a summer-only job, he said. That tattoo shop is closed for the winter, and he's trying to make ends meet now doing odd jobs. He spent Wednesday helping install insulation in a trailer.
But Whitely said he has a talent and she's eager to get Aldrich started in her shop.
"Nobody is a saint. I don't care who you are," she said. "We've all done stupid stuff, and yet you grow past it. He's a family guy now, and he's trying to do things the right way."