After A Ban On Tattoo Parlors Is Challenged, Ink Shops Make A Debut

Monday, October 15th 2007, 8:41 am
By: News On 6

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ Tattoo artist Bo Mencarelli chills out on a chair near Duval Street's fish restaurants and beer-soaked bars, dragging on a cigarette and saying, ``What's up, brother,'' to those who recognize the thin man with ink paintings on his arms.

On an island with its own cadre of celebrities _ Ernest Hemingway impersonators, cross-dressing Swedes, even wandering chickens _ Mencarelli is a standout.

He and friend Jim McAlhany operate Key West Ink, one of two tattoo parlors that opened in late August on Duval, this island's main drag.

One would think that getting tattooed in Key West would be as natural as finding a piece of Key lime pie. But the shop owners had to go to court to erase a Navy-backed, four-decade ordinance that banned tattoo parlors.

``This Key West and this is Duval. He-llo,'' Mencarelli said. ``You can do anything you want here, and you can see just about anything... This town is ready for it.''

Key West Ink now attracts a stream of customers and visiting artists from around the country. Artists also say the change is another sign of the growing acceptance of tattooing as a form of expression.

But in the 1960s, Key West was a bustling Navy port, with some 10,000 sailors and another 10,000 family members helping fuel the economy, historian Tom Hambright said.

Sailors got tattoos in places with dirty needles _ leading to hepatitis and other illnesses, Hambright said. The Navy began pressuring port cities to restrict tattooing and Key West passed its ban in 1966.

Forty years passed and tattooing became more mainstream, except in this most unmainstream of communities, where outrageousness is prized and the biggest festival features topless women covered in body paint.

In February, Key West Ink and Paradise Tattoo and Body Piercing sued the city, claiming the tattoo shop prohibition violated their constitutional right of freedom of expression.

Some residents feared that tattoo parlors would overtake Duval Street, already filled with gaudy T-shirt shops that many believe cheapen the historic district visited by Harry Truman and frequented by literary giants Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.

But McAlhany pressed the issue because municipalities generally can't ban what the state allows. Cities can, however, regulate where tattoo parlors can open.

The city and the parlors reached a settlement. Key West Ink and Paradise could open on Duval, but new parlors will be limited to a commercial zone away from the street.

McAlhany had a spot picked out and opened his shop the day of the settlement. The parlor has $5,000 chairs for customers, the latest drawing equipment and a hypnotizing wall mural featuring images of swimming dolphins, fishermen, and, of course, Papa Hemingway.

He has health guidelines for artists that include a class on blood-borne pathogens, plus training on HIV/AIDS and first aid. There's also a message on the wall that reads: ``We recognize tattoos as a national form of art and therefore protected by the Constitution of the United States of America as a freedom of expression, an unalienable human right.''

The shop blows away all conceptions of a backroom tattoo parlor, with tourists flashing photos outside and folks relaxing on comfy chairs inside.

Among McAlhany's first customers was a drag queen named Inga the Swedish Bombshell. Since, he has gotten visits from an 82-year-old woman who got a conch shell tattoo and a man who flew in from Fort Myers on a private jet for a quick inking.

One recent afternoon, it was Jesper Noergaard, of Denmark, getting an Ace of Spades and King of Hearts on his inside forearm. ``They finally got tattoos on Duval Street and I wanted to be a part of that,'' Noergaard said.

A Fort Lauderdale native, McAlhany, 50, didn't get interested in tattoos until four years ago.

``Things change as generations get older,'' McAlhany said, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt to show his arm tattoos. ``When I was growing up, I would never get a tattoo. I thought it was a biker thing. You change your thinking as you get older. You get wiser.''

McAlhany recruited Mencarelli, 50, to join him in the business. Mencarelli, who started ``slinging ink'' after getting out of the military in the mid-1980s, jumped at the moneymaking opportunity. He is recruiting visiting artists and the shop has reservations stretching into next year.

``Because it's become such a lucrative industry, you've got everybody and their mother trying to own a shop and work a shop,'' Mencarelli said.