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Tattoo parlor gets under skin of a stereotype

November 8, 2014

A few years back I might have been able to put a wacky spin on this story. Something with a headline like, “Right-wing think tank comes to the aid of left-wing business.”

That would have been fun.

It’s just not true anymore. The enterprising couple being represented by the conservative Goldwater Institute in their fight against the Tempe City Council are the owners of a mainstream business: A tattoo parlor.

“Times have changed,” said Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation. “It’s a shame that the council members in this case are reluctant to see that.”

It all started when Tom and Elizabeth Preston, owners of the Virtual Reality tattoo studio in Mesa, decided to set up a new shop in a Tempe strip mall on Scottsdale Road. The Prestons have operated for 14 years and have a clean record.

And while Tempe city employees charged with granting permits to business owners sided with the Prestons, the shop was opposed by the North Tempe Neighborhood Association.

The owner of a plumbing business located near the proposed tattoo parlor told the council, “It’s going to look like another skid row if we let this kind of business come in.”

Maybe 50 years ago. But today?

The Pew Research Center did a study recently and reported that 36 percent of those ages 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo.

Earlier this month, thousands attended the ninth annual Arizona Tattoo Expo at the Mesa Convention Center.

One exhibitor told The Republic, “Can you believe it, with this economy we still are going to have more than 3,000 people here today? This really is the ‘people’s art’ and the people are here today to prove how much they like it.”

Publications throughout the country have done articles about how tattoo studios seem to be one of the few “recession-proof” businesses.

Tattoos have gone mainstream.

Except, perhaps, in parts of Tempe.

“In taking this case we want to emphasize that the law is meant to treat everyone equally and not to be politicized by folks who are basing their decisions on old, worn-out stereotypes,” Bolick said.

Last week, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge said that the Tempe council had improperly revoked the permit that the Prestons had been granted to open their studio. The judge sent the issue back to the council to reconsider its decision. It makes no sense for a city to spend money trying to keep out a legitimate business from which it could be collecting taxes.

But that is the way of prejudice.

The first time I spoke to Tom Preston about his work he told me, “There is no typical customer anymore. The business is mainstream. We do everybody now. Construction workers. Schoolteachers. Police officers. We do 40- and 50- and 60-year-olds.”

Tempe council members probably know some of those very clients.

The Goldwater Institute’s Bolick told me, “I would hope that the council would simply do the right thing and let the Prestons get on with their business. They’ve already made quite an investment in the property. But if the council decides that they won’t do that and instead will deny the Prestons again, then we are prepared to go back to court.”

The Tempe City Council apparently didn’t recognize that a tattoo artist and a think-tank lawyer have a lot in common.

On the surface, a tattoo artist appears to be an easy political target. A pesky lawyer, on the other hand, can really get under your skin.



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