A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ban on tattoo parlors by the city of Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles County.
Judge Jay Bybee wrote that tattooing is a "unique and important method of expression," protected by the constitutional First Amendment right of free speech.
Hermosa Beach, with a population of about 19,000, had a ban on any type of tattoo parlor. City officials cited health and safety concerns as the reason.
The measure was challenged in a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2007 by Johnny Anderson, a tattooist who had a shop in city of Los Angeles and wanted to set up a parlor in Hermosa Beach.
He said in a court filing, "The tattoo designs that are applied by me are individual and unique creative works of visual art, designed by me in collaboration with the person who is to receive the tattoo."
The appeals court said the city's health concerns could be taken care of through regulation of tattooing, rather than an absolute ban on all tattoo parlors in the city.
The court said the free-speech right applies to both tattooists and their clients and to the process of tattooing as well.
Bybee wrote, "Tattooing is a process like writing words down or drawing a picture except that it is performed on a person's skin."
He said, "The tattoo cannot be created without the tattooing process any more than the Declaration of Independence could have been created without a goose quill, foolscap and ink."
Under state law, tattooists must register with county health departments. Hermosa Beach officials argued that they were concerned that Los Angeles County had only one inspector to monitor nearly 300 local tattoo parlors.