Richard Lewis scouted a prime location to open his business. In a former Plant City doctor's office, sinks in every room made the building perfect for a tattoo studio. Just one detail stood in the way: the law.
"I've got everything," said Lewis, 56. "I've got the building, but I can't get in it."
Could that soon change? City commissioners are considering amending a long-standing code that prohibits tattoo parlors and body piercing salons within Plant City limits.
A proposed ordinance could allow those businesses in certain commercial zones, excluding the downtown and midtown developments.
"It's a freedom of speech issue," Mayor Dan Raulerson said. "If someone wants to open a tattoo parlor and they have the right to do so under the Constitution, who are we to say they can't?"
He cited a recent circuit court case from California, where judges ruled that a municipal ban on tattoo shops was unconstitutional because tattooing fell under First Amendment protection.
Making sure the city complies with the Constitution will pre-empt legal challenges that could put an "undue burden" on the city, he said.
That duty trumps any individual opinions on tattoos, he said.
"It's a matter of personal taste," Raulerson said. "Some people will be fine with it, and other people will not like it. ... You have to try to find a common ground that we can all live with."
Nobody spoke at a March 26 public hearing on the proposed ordinance, to support it or to argue against it.
City commissioners will likely vote on the proposal after the second public hearing Monday.
Vice Mayor Bill Dodson has made it known that he doesn't favor the idea.
"There is no pressing matter in front of us," he said, "so I see no need to make a change to the policy."
He respects people's rights to express themselves through body art and says options remain accessible outside the city.
Tattoo and body piercing businesses, he said, do not reflect the community's values.
The City Commission last considered this issue in 2004. Since then, the city planning director notes that tattoo and body piercing businesses have become more commonplace, often appearing in malls. The Florida Legislature has passed laws to regulate and license both types of businesses.
But whether Plant City will embrace the change remains to be seen.
"It's an olive branch," said local tattoo artist Marc Draven, 38, "to show people that the city as a whole or as a commission are willing to make advancements to get up to current times."
He doubted that many new tattoo businesses would come into Plant City, with the proposed ordinance excluding certain areas and other restrictions that landlords may impose on storefronts.
A Plant City resident, he opened Draven's City Limits Tattoos in 2004, right outside the city border. And now he won't consider moving it, even if the ordinance passes.
"It doesn't really affect me too much," he said. "If somebody else wants to open up, then have at it."
Draven worries, though, that lifting the restriction could make it easier for inexperienced inkers to offer cheap tattoos.
That's a fear shared by another Plant City tattoo artist. Paul Crace, 46, says mainstream acceptance hasn't necessarily benefited tattooing.
"There's too many people getting chopped up," he said, referring to botched tattoos. "There's a lot of ignorance in tattooing, and it's because artists think they're all rock stars."
Crace operates an Ybor City tattoo studio in addition to one just outside Plant City. He, too, said he likely wouldn't relocate inside city limits and seemed disgruntled that the ban may lift after he had been turned down years ago.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.