The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Really? You quoted Jimmy Buffett on tattoos?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Let’s face it. Most people ought not be wearing tattoos. No one over 40 ought sport one at all because by 45, the eagle spreads to a vulture and the cute kitties to a saggy, baggy elephant.

Back when I was young, stupid and thought I could make fun of being old, I shared a snark with a co-worker about nursing homes of the future being filled with aging boomers and Xers with nose rings hanging down over dentures and tattoos spreading across, well, across.

I’m not one for piercings and tattoos as my preferred First Amendment expression, but what the heck, if you want one or a dozen, help yourself.

All that to say: Was Key West serious when it argued — very unsuccessfully mind you — that the city didn’t need a third tattoo parlor in Old Town and that a Jimmy Buffettt song proved their point?

cropped-KWWM_Letters.pngBack in 1966, the U.S. Navy, which is an economic engine and power broker on this two-mile by four-mile island, convinced the city to ban tattoo parlors should sailors spend their furlough money unwisely. No tattoo parlors dared ink an arm until 2007 when two shop owners sued the city and won.

But, just two, said the city and refused thereafter to allow more in precious Old Town. (There’s plenty to choose from if you go a few blocks outside the historic district. I’m willing to bet no one determined to ink up has trouble finding a vendor.)

Back to Key West and its Old Town tattoo parlors. Along comes Brad Buehrle in 2011. This Virginia tattoo artist sued the city, claiming his First Amendment rights were being abridged by the city’s refusal to grant him a business license to open a tattoo parlor in Old Town.

The courts long ago decided that artistic expression, tattoos included, is covered under the First Amendment and governments can’t make laws outlawing them. Cities can, however, with appropriate documentation, have all manner of rules and regulations governing who can sell what where, what kinds of signs can be hung or what businesses are allowed to compete, all in the name of preserving the things that make a place a place.

In order to keep out an Old Town tattoo parlor, Key West had to prove that a third one would be an overwhelming detriment to city.

And the city went off the rails.

Eschewing proof that a third tattoo parlor would harm the Old Town culture, the economy or the neighborhoods, Key West turned mother-of-all-mothers for tourists. Why, sighed the city, these tourists will come here, get a tattoo (apparently in some paradisiac euphoria), regret said tattoo and post vile things about Key West on the interwebbies.

Here’s where Key West icon Jimmy Buffet comes in. The city quotes Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” specificallyDon’t know the reason I stayed here all season, with nothing to show but this brand new tattoo … how it got here I haven’t a clue.”

Oh, fudge.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that Key West could not refuse Burhrle a business license. Though he appears to have had to beggar himself to fight the city, Burhrle’s happy, 

Frankly, I wish the city would figure out how to ban tattoo parlors, oversize entertainment vehicles that cater to tourists, T-shirt shops hawking words and phrases that embarrass pretty much everyone, landlords who don’t paint their properties, tourists who walk out in front of cars, tenants and homeowners who fail to bring in the trash and recycling bins, chickens that don’t use birth control and iguanas.

But no more Buffett songs, OK?

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a digital management company. She loves the beat and you can dance to it. She has never been inside the Key West Margaritaville.


  1. Frank Sayles Jr.

    Linda: I met you years ago at some API seminar when I was an editor at the Charleston, S.C, Post and Courier. After knocking around South Carolina, West Virginia and Georgia as an editor and later a publisher of medium- to small-town newspapers, I too left legacy media to start a local e-newspaper and marketing/consulting business. My wife and I have been visiting Key West every couple of years for 30 years now, renting a house for a week at time. Key West is where I’m planning my next move. Hope things are going well for you there. By the way, we have “been inside” Margaritaville many times, initially when it was only a clothing shop in Land’s End Village in the mid to late ’80s. Yes, it’s touristy and kitschy, but so are many things on the Rock. Cheers!

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Frank, I remember, and it’s good to reconnect. Would love to someday compare notes. The next time you’re headed this way, let me know and we’ll make time. Never a moment of regret about the move to Key West.

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