Tempe tattoos a stereotype on couple

Posted on November 08, 2007 | Type: In the News
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Tattoo parlor owner Tom Preston and those who support him, including the conservative Goldwater Institute, believe that he is the victim of discrimination by the Tempe City Council.

All that they ask is for Preston to be judged by the content of his character and not by the colors of his skin.

"These people are going after me because of a perception that isn't true," Preston told me. "That's not how we're supposed to do things."

Last month, the council voted 7-0 to deny Preston the opportunity to open a tattoo parlor on Scottsdale Road.

The shop was opposed by the North Tempe Neighborhood Association, including the folks who own the plumbing business that would have been Preston's neighbor. The owner of that business, Nancy Hickman, told the council, "It's going to look like another skid row if we let this kind of business come in."

Preston and his wife, Elizabeth, have operated the Virtual Reality tattoo studio in Mesa for 14 years. They point to a clean record and to their work trying to establish statewide health standards for businesses like theirs.

A Tempe hearing officer granted the Prestons' initial request for a use permit. When that decision was appealed by the neighborhood association, the city's Development Review Commission also approved the Prestons. The couple have sunk a lot of money into the project. But the city council went against them.

That decision got the attention of Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute's Center for Constitutional Litigation.

"I would love to know how many of the people who were against the Prestons have kids or grandkids with tattoos," Bolick told me. "What's driving public policy here is a view that is unfair and obsolete. Not one comment at that meeting was directed at the Prestons. They were directed at people's perceptions of the tattoo industry. And that is unfortunate."

The Prestons moved to Arizona 17 years ago from Northern California. The couple have lots of body art, but also two kids, a house and the kind of day-to-day existence shared by just about everyone who works hard for a living.

"There is no typical customer anymore," Preston told me. "The business is mainstream. We do everybody now. Construction workers. Schoolteachers. Police officers. We've done Mormon kids about to go on missions. We've done people who just had babies and want the kid's name or picture. We do 40- and 50- and 60-year-olds."

Bolick and the Goldwater Institute have filed a lawsuit against Tempe, saying that the Prestons' due process, equal protection and free speech rights are being tattooed by the city.

"Hopefully, we can make a precedent out of this case," Bolick said. "And while we joke a little about it, this guy played completely by the rules. Decisions like this are not supposed to be made based on stereotypes."

A generation from now this won't be an issue. Tattooing has gone mainstream. Good luck trying to find a young woman on a college campus who doesn't have some delicate tattoo on her ankle or the small of her back.

"We see lots and lots of college kids," Preston said. Unfortunately, people that age don't yet have political clout. And unless Tempe changes its mind, the lawsuit could take a year or two to wind its way through the courts.

Bolick told me that if he wins the case, he actually might "get inked."

Not me. I kind of like the idea that in the near future being a "blank canvas" will earn a person non-conformist status. This is America, after all, where we also have the right to bare arms.

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