Federal Appeals Court: 'Margaritaville' Lyrics Unconvincing Argument Against Tattoos

Jan 4, 2016

  A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a tattoo parlor owner and against the city of Key West's attempt to block a new tattoo business from opening in the city's historic district.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that tattoos and tattooing are artistic expression, protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And it rejected the city's arguments that tattoo parlors could hurt the "character and fabric" of the Old Town area and thus hurt tourism.

In a footnote, the judges specifically rejected the city's attempts to use the lyrics to Jimmy Buffett's iconic song "Margaritaville" to claim "that inebriated tourists are likely to get and then regret tattoos if more tattoo establishments operate in the historic district."

The judges went to the primary source material: "But the singer in 'Margaritaville' — seemingly far from suffering embarrassment over his tattoo — considers it a 'real beauty.' (Jimmy Buffett, 'Margaritaville,' in Songs You Know By Heart (Geffen Records 1985)"

Tattoo parlors were banned in the city of Key West in 1966, reportedly at the request of the U.S. Navy. They were allowed again in 2007 following a lawsuit, though those in the Old Town area required special permission, known as a conditional use.

Two tattoo parlors are currently operating in Old Town. When Brad Buehrle applied to open a third in 2013, the city rejected his request.

A federal judge ruled in the city's favor, finding that even though tattoos are protected under the First Amendment, the city's rules were a "reasonable time, place and manner restriction." The appeals court differed on that question.

"The city pointed to no study indicating that the operation of tattoo establishments in the historic district would impact the tourism industry," the judges wrote. "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."