The city of Key West has reached a $425,000 settlement with a tattoo artist it tried to stop from opening a new shop in the historic district, citing an old law later struck down by an appellate court.
Brad Buehrle has agreed to drop his federal case against the city, filed in May 2013 after the city rejected his application to open a tattoo business in Old Town. Insurance will cover the payment, said attorney Michael Burke, who handled the case for Key West.
“The city will not ultimately be paying any of the settlement proceeds,” Burke wrote in a recent letter to City Attorney Shawn Smith.
Burke added Buehrle was ready to present evidence of having lost $700,000 in economic damages plus additional damages such as mental distress.
City commissioners must approve the settlement to make it final and the item is on the agenda for their Feb. 21 meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 1300 White St.
The settlement would end a nearly five-year legal battle with Buehrle that at first the city was winning, citing its law that strictly limited the number of tattoo shops downtown.
U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez sided with the city, saying Buehrle, who runs a tattoo business in Richmond, Va., could open his tattoo shop on North Roosevelt Boulevard in New Town or work at one of the two existing shops on Duval Street.
But the appellate court reversed Martinez and sent the case back on the track to trial.
“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,” the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal said in late 2015.
Also, the court ruled, the city couldn’t come up with any evidence to prove the new tattoo shop would have any negative effect on Key West’s tourism.
Local lore holds that the city kept a lock on tattoo shops, completely banning them on the island from 1966 to 2007, at the behest of the U.S. Navy, which feared its sailors would get ill-advised tattoos.
Former city planner Donald Craig, however, did quote Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” song, in which the narrator mentions a new tattoo he doesn’t remember getting. But even the Buffett defense doesn’t hold water, the appellate court said, quoting the singer’s insistence that the tattoo is “a real beauty.”
Despite the law, in 2007, the city settled with the owners of tattoo parlors Key West Ink, now called Southernmost Tattoo; and Paradise Tattoo, which are both on Duval Street. They, like Buehrle, sued and claimed the ban violated First Amendment rights.
The settlement allowed both parlors to operate in the Historic District but the ban remained in place otherwise, with the exception of future tattoo establishments being allowed to open only in the commercial general district along North Roosevelt Boulevard in New Town.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen