Key West just wanted to protect people from making a mistake they couldn’t easily erase.
The Florida city’s blanket prohibition on tattoo parlors in its downtown area lasted from 1966 to 2007; local lore has it that the ban came at request of the U.S. Navy, which didn’t want its sailors making regrettable decisions while enjoying their time on land. A legal challenge forced the city to relax its stance in the late 2000s, and there are now two tattoo parlors in the city’s historic district. Brad Buehrle, who already owned a tattoo shop in Richmond, Virginia, wanted to open one more. He ended up going to court.
Buehrle won the case on appeal in late December, on the grounds that both being a tattoo artist and getting a tattoo are acts of free expression protected by the First Amendment. But before he won, Key West aired its deepest, darkest tattoo fears.
First, as Judge Jill Pryor writes in her decision for the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the city worried that more tattoo parlors would not be in keeping with the historic district’s character. Furthermore, Key West officials fretted “that rash tourists will obtain regrettable tattoos, leading to negative association with Key West.” Driving away tourists would be a particularly bad idea for the Florida city: tourism is a major pillar of its economy.
Key West is not alone in attempting to legislate body artists out of its “family-friendly” areas. A number of cities and towns have added extra regulatory hoops for tattoo parlors and customers, mostly on the grounds that these “adult-themed” businesses attract less-than-savory characters. ("If a businessman wants to open a tattoo parlor in Woodland Park, he's going to have to open a top shelf tattoo parlor," a councilman in the northern New Jersey community told a local paper in 2011.) Others ban tattoo shops on the grounds that body art is linked to criminal organizations as well as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
The judges adjudicating Buehrle’s case were unconvinced by Key West’s stance. “Consistent with the Supreme Court’s teaching, the right to display a tattoo loses meaning if the government can freely restrict the right to obtain a tattoo in the first place,” Pryor wrote in her opinion (italics hers). She argued the city had failed to prove that tattoo shops would actually drive tourists away.
Enter Jimmy Buffet. Pryor got a little spicy with a Key West City attorney who had quoted the “Margaritaville” singer in an oral argument, writing in an A-plus footnote:
[The song] was referenced...by the city’s attorney in oral argument before the district court, to support the claim that inebriated tourists are likely to get and then regret tattoos if more tattoo establishments operate in the historic district. But the singer in “Margaritaville”—seemingly far from suffering embarrassment over his tattoo—considers it “a real beauty.”
Pryor, our new protectress of dubious decision-making, omits that the narrator of Buffett’s song admits he hasn’t “a clue” how his new tattoo got there in the very next line.
But never mind! Many states—Arkansas, Colorado, and Michigan, to name a few—have laws on the books preventing body artists from performing their work on noticeably impaired customers, in an attempt to protect the inebriated from poor and permanent choices.
Florida doesn’t. Have a margarita.