Brian Thompson inspects the burned out interior of Philthy Clean Tattoo, his shop on the corner of University Avenue and Tenth Street, which was destroyed by fire early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 15. Credit: Berenice Thompson

At least six of the 16 tenants living above the West Berkeley tattoo shop destroyed by fire early Sunday morning ended up sleeping on the streets or in their car Sunday night, and six employees of Philthy Clean Tattoo are temporarily out of work as the owners search for a new location to rebuild in Berkeley. 

Brett Walden was given a $515 voucher from the Red Cross after he was smoked out of his apartment above the tattoo shop. But the Berkeley Travelodge told him they were full, and he said he couldn’t get into another motel either. So Walden, who had been homeless years ago in both Berkeley and Manhattan, wandered up and down Claremont Avenue and napped on a bench in People’s Park. 

Kizzy K. Salahuddin was offered a motel room to stay in by her landlord, Victoria Singh, on Sunday. But afraid people would steal her belongings and unwilling to abandon her six cats, Salahuddin spent the night on a fire escape landing with her three adult daughters. They fended off rats with flashlights and returned to the unit through the night to feed the cats and change their litter. “I just kept going and giving them water, talking to them, hugging them,” she said. “I wanted to hold my post.”

By Monday evening, Walden, Salahuddin and the rest of the building’s tenants — most of whom are low-income and use Section 8 housing vouchers — had been settled into motel rooms and an Airbnb, according to Singh, who owns the building at 1015 University Ave. with her husband, Dhian. Some of the 11 apartment units, and three of the building’s four retail spaces, suffered smoke damage, but Singh estimates all residents will be able to return to their units by next week.

The Singhs own a few buildings in the area and are trying to retire. They had listed the 1015 University building for sale for nearly $4 million, but said their plans to sell are on hold for now. “(All my) tenants will help us to rebuild this again,” Victoria Singh said.

A preliminary investigation points to an electrical malfunction in the tattoo shop, said Dori Tieu, the Berkeley Fire Department’s inspector. She said she couldn’t trace the source. An investigator for the tattoo shop’s insurance company was on the scene on Tuesday, Tieu said.

Tieu said that while she won’t be able to do a full inspection for fire code violations until September, she noticed that the building had “pretty old wiring.” It also had some fire code violations in past years, Tieu said, though the commercial units were currently code compliant.

Some of the Singhs’ tenants said that the washer-dryer common to the building had recently caught on fire. Victoria Singh denied this and said that the machine was not her responsibility but that of the “laundry company.”

‘We had made our stamp in the city and it’s gone’

The building suffered “pretty extensive smoke damage,” Battalion Chief Brian Harryman of the Berkeley Fire Department said, but fire damage was mostly contained to the tattoo shop. Credit: Zac Farber

Brian Thompson, who owns Philthy Clean Tattoo with his wife, Berenice, remembers how he felt when he looked at the charred and splintered wreckage of his shop on Sunday: “We had made our stamp in the city and it’s gone.” 

They’re taking solace in the well-wishes and memories that are streaming in on social media and in what they found still intact on the scorched walls of the shop: two blackened crosses and the statue of a baby angel. “We both felt like it was a message from God letting us know everything will be OK,” Thompson said. “A reminder to continue staying positive and grateful even when unfortunate things happen.”

A small statue of a baby angel was among the shop’s few treasures to survive the fire. Credit: Melody Colombini

The Thompsons own two other tattoo shops, in Fairfield and in Woodland, but they started their business in Berkeley and considered the 1015 University location to be their flagship. They opened Philthy Clean about a decade ago, seeking to cultivate an experiential atmosphere for clients with “a lot of good times and a lot of love coming out the door.” 

When they moved Philthy Clean to the corner of University and Tenth in 2016, they set about turning the space into “a museum” of sorts, showcasing work made by the shop’s up-and-coming tattoo artists. They covered the windows in reflective gold, painted murals on the walls and framed their staff’s drawings, watercolors and airbrushed designs. In a process that took a month, Thompson cut and installed the shop’s custom wood ceiling himself. 

Now all that remains is the landmark Route 66-style marquee painted by graffiti artist Bounce, a Philthy Clean employee, on the building’s exterior. It reads: “Welcome to Fabulous Berkeley California.” 

“I built that place with my own two hands,” Thompson said. “We’ve tattooed everybody, from firefighters to regular dudes to cops to ballplayers to politicians.”

After hearing reports of the fire, the Thompsons piled their three kids into their minivan and went to inspect the shop.  

“I was in shock, honestly, at a loss for words,” Berenice Thompson said. “We thought maybe something in the front, maybe something else to the side. When we showed up and saw everything completely gone, we were just crushed. … So much art on the walls, so much history.”

“We’ve tattooed everybody, from firefighters to regular dudes to cops to ballplayers to politicians.” — Brian Thompson

Next door to the tattoo parlor, Omar Alammari’s tobacco shop, The One Smoke and Wireless Shop, was spared by the flames. But smoke damage means Alammari will have to throw away about $50,000 in inventory — clothing, unwrapped bongs he’d hoped to sell to UC Berkeley students and a vast supply of cigarettes he bought when the store first opened in January. 

Alammari is worried his insurance might not cover all his costs, but he said he was thankful the merchandise in his other business — a clothing shop a couple doors down in the same building — was undamaged by the fire. And he is grateful to customers across the street who alerted him to the blaze and stood outside and guarded the shop against potential looters until he could arrive. “I’m loyal to them, they’re loyal to me,” Alammari said. 

By Monday evening, the power was back on in Alammari’s store, and clerks were selling shrink-wrapped cigarette packs and sealed pouches of chewing tobacco.

Smoke damage was not as costly at Kabana, the Pakistani restaurant between Alammari’s two shops, but owner Mohammad Chaudry still expected to lose $8,000 in food spoiled from the power outage and at least $5,000 in lost revenue. 

‘Then I started smelling it’

Kizzy K. Salahuddin on the metal stairway where she and her three daughters spent the night after the fire so they could feed and comfort their six cats. Her unit was not badly damaged by smoke. Credit: Zac Farber

When the tattoo shop below her apartment caught fire a little after 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Kizzy Salahuddin had been at her computer creating beats — the indie pop-influenced “zippy sounds” and instrumental “out-of-this-world” music she sometimes stays up all night making. 

Suddenly, she heard “big loud crashing sounds” coming from outside, though, living on busy University Avenue, she didn’t think much of them at first. Tieu said the sounds were likely of glass breaking.

“Then I start hearing popping sounds, and I thought it was gunshots. It went from sounding like gunshots to sounding like firecrackers,” she said. “I looked out the window and saw color. Then I started smelling it.”

Salahuddin jumped out of her chair and roused her three daughters who share the two-bedroom apartment. “I think the building’s on fire,” she told them. “Get up now. This is no joke.” 

Salahuddin grabbed only her cellphone as she evacuated her apartment, leaving behind her six cats as she fled with her daughters into a smoky hallway where a neighbor’s boyfriend was going door to door with his dog waking up tenants.

Downstairs, Berkeley firefighters arrived around 2:45 a.m. and found flames jumping out of the windows of the tattoo shop, burning hot enough to melt the parking meters on the sidewalk.

As firefighters doused the blaze, Salahuddin huddled with her daughters and neighbors in the parking lot behind the building. 

“All we could do is stand there and watch,” she said.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that an investigator for the tattoo shop’s insurance company inspected the property after the fire — not the building owner’s insurance company.

Before joining Berkeleyside as managing editor in April 2021, Zac was editor of the Southwest Journal, a 30,000-circulation biweekly community paper in Minneapolis, MN. While there, he led coverage of...