Josh Holzer, 25, gets a tattoo of Johnny's Saloon's POW/ MIA roof sign by artist Hector "HEK" Valdez at Tattoo Gallery in Huntington Beach on Tuesday. Holzer is a regular customer at Johnny's Saloon. (KEVIN CHANG, HB Independent / December 3, 2013)

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Huntington Beach tattoo artist Hector "HEK" Valdez was busy at work Tuesday — a tattoo machine in one hand and a patron's arm in the other.

The design of choice was a scaled-down version of the now nationally recognized sign atop Johnny's Saloon, off Beach Boulevard and Slater Avenue.

Valdez partnered with the bar's owner, Johnny Kresimir, to offer 50 free tattoos to those willing to permanently support the "Thank a veteran for your freedom" sign. They are campaigning for the city to allow the sign to stay on the tavern's roof, even though it technically violates city codes.

Johnny's received a notice Nov. 25 for having an unpermitted rooftop sign — a sign that has been in the same spot for years. The code enforcement intern who wrote the citation gave Kresimir two days to remove it or face a $960 fine.

The bar owner took to Facebook and immediately won support from residents and veterans.

The social media universe erupted Monday after Kresimir posted a picture on Facebook of an employee sporting a fresh tattoo of the sign on his calf.

Hundreds of "likes" and dozens of comments followed — some asking how to get a similar tattoo.

"I thought it was so rad," Valdez said about the tattoo idea. "It's the ultimate way of saying, 'Hey, this is how much I care about this. So much so that I'm going to get a tattoo on my body for the rest of my life.' That's awesome."

The tattoos, roughly 2-by-3 inches, will all be done by Valdez at his shop, the Tattoo Gallery at 19921 Beach Blvd.

Huntington Beach resident Josh Holzer, 25, became the latest human canvas. Holzer requested a 4-by-6-inch representation — one that only he and the employee from Johnny's who started the trend will bear.

Holzer said he never had the guts to join the military but that getting some new ink in support of the fighting men and women was the next best thing.

"This is just something small, but it's something, right?" he said.

Valdez guided his tattoo gun over the stencil as Holzer lay flat on his stomach, looking at his arm every once in a while. Old-school hip hop blasted through the shop speakers.

"I appreciate HEK doing this for us," Holzer said. "He's doing everybody a huge favor, letting us all show our appreciation and his appreciation. You got a thank a veteran for your freedom, right?"

Kresimir said the tattoos are a way for non-veterans to show their support.

"Some people post to social media, some wear a 'Thank a veteran' shirt, some get a tattoo," he said. "I'm all in favor of as much spreading of the message as possible to our veterans that we appreciate them, and they are why we can enjoy life in America."

Kresimir has been inundated with support from veterans nationwide.

"As a Vietnam vet, Brown Water Navy, seeing such a sign just adds to the healing and renews my faith in this country," Richard Gross posted on the Johnny's Saloon Facebook page. "Politicians come and go, but patriotism lasts forever."

Kresimir said he'll be talking with city officials at the end of the week in hopes of retaining the sign, which violates a city code against rooftop signage.

City spokeswoman Laurie Frymire wrote in an email Tuesday that talks are underway, and the city has provided the business with a 90-day period to hash out the details.