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Tattooing Ruled a 'Protected Artistic Expression' by Federal Court

While tattooing is far more accepted by the mainstream than it was a few decades ago, tattooists sometimes feel like they are fighting an uphill battle against local government. Business zoning laws are usually the tool used by these governments to keep tattoo shops from opening up in their town, but thanks to a recent ruling by a federal appeals court it may be more difficult for governments to discriminate against tattoo shops in the future.

For the past four years tattooist Brad Buehrle has been trying to open up a tattoo shop in Key West, Fl., only to be denied a business license by the city. In their arguments in front of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the city asserted that a tattoo shop opening downtown would not only go against the historic aesthetic of Key West, but that it would also be detrimental to tourism. How exactly could a tattoo shop be detrimental to tourism? The city argued that if tourists made rash tattoo decisions while on vacation they would give Key West a bad name when complaining about their ink, thus convincing other people to avoid visiting one of America's most beautiful locales. It doesn't take much thought to realize that this argument is completely ludicrous, and that is what judge Jill Pryor explained in her ruling.

"Particularly glaring is the lack of evidentiary support for the city’s assertions concerning tattooing’s purported effect on tourism,” the ruling said. “The city pointed to no study indicating that the operation of tattoo establishments in the historic district would impact the tourism industry. The city conducted no investigation and made no findings. It relied upon no expert testimony, findings made by other municipalities, or evidence described in judicial decisions. It failed to muster even anecdotal evidence supporting its claims. The closest the city came to presenting evidence on the impact on tourism was a passing reference to a few lines of a Jimmy Buffett song. And we are unsure whether even that reference fully supports its position.”

When you go into court with nothing more than a few antiquated ideas about how tattoo shops are run and some Jimmy Buffet lyrics it doesn't take a legal expert to know that you have no chance of winning the case. While this is a major victory for Buehrle and his future shop, the effects of the ruling may also be seen all over the country. When the court ruled that tattooing is a "protected artistic expression" under the First Amendment it sets a precedent that tattooing is protected as a form of free speech, and thus making it more difficult for other local governments to force shops out of their towns for spurious reasons.

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