The Goldwater Institute is helping the owners of a tattoo parlor sue Tempe because the city is refusing to let them open a tattoo studio.
Though cities have discretion to stop some kinds of businesses, the Phoenix think-tank claims Tempe has gone too far by blocking it solely on the stigma associated with the body-art industry.
The City Council voted unanimously to block a use permit a month ago after hearing from a neighborhood group that opposed the business on Scottsdale Road in north Tempe.
The group argued the business would further degrade the public’s perception of the area, partly because check-cashing, bail-bond, liquor and adult stores have clustered in the area.
The city overreached its authority by blocking a business that meets all the city’s legal requirements, said Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute litigation director.
“If the city wants to enact a policy, it should enact a policy rather than making decisions on an ad-hoc basis,” Bolick said. “Right now Tempe has no restrictions on tattoo studios, and we think that lumping tattoo studios in with undesirable businesses is irrational.”
The institute filed suit Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of Thomas and Elizabeth Preston, who have owned a Mesa tattoo parlor named Virtual Reality for 14 years. They previously owned a Tempe tattoo shop.
The Prestons are trying to overturn Tempe’s decision and seek financial compensation.
Thomas Preston spent about $30,000 to meet conditions of a use permit the city had issued previously, according to the suit.
Preston said he assumed he had permission to open, but was later informed a neighborhood group appealed the permit he was issued.
“As far as we knew, we could go into business,” Preston said.
But the council later voted to reject the permit based on the appeal.
Preston said he is only suing Tempe because the Goldwater Institute contacted him and offered to represent him for free. He said he couldn’t afford the attorneys fees otherwise.
City Attorney Andrew Ching said he hadn’t read the suit yet.
Neighbors oppose the business because they say the presence of a tattoo parlor signals an area is in decline, said Darlene Justus, president of the North Tempe Neighborhood Association. The area already has too many payday-loan stores, pawn shops and adult businesses, she said.
“It’s just piling on top of what we already have to contend with,” Justus said.
Preston argued tattoo parlors aren’t seedy places. Tattoos are mainstream now and customers include police, fire fighters, teachers and lawyers, he said.
“If you go around Tempe and do a poll of how many people have tattoos, I can guarantee you it’s going to be well above 50 percent,” Preston said.