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I’ve been watching tattoo artist Sal Unvar’s journey through the corrupt, absurd and often ridiculous labyrinth of Key West Code Enforcement in my two-week-old issues of Key West the Newspaper. From my present vantage point in a third world country, far removed from busybody legal demands over house color, fence height, and street performance, the spectacle is a source of constant amusement.


My neighborhood here is remarkably beautiful, lush and green, thick with birds and flowers. We live in a pretty little white house with a spectacular view of the city below us. But local home décor decisions would induce apoplectic seizure in a card-carrying member of

Key West

‘s Art and Historical Society.


The house at the entrance to our driveway is lime green. Next door, behind an eight-foot iron fence topped with razor wire another is painted orange with emerald green trim. A little way down the gravel road from there in a cluster of tiny, similarly colorful homes is a purple "A" frame with yellow walls. The front yard garden features a six-foot scarecrow in a pink pinafore. It’s head is a stuffed blue trash bag. It has no face.


There are no aesthetic police to compel the locals to paint their houses gray or white. There is no commission of busybodies with impeccable good taste to whip the philistines into line. What ever will we do?



San Jose

jugglers perform at stoplights. They have forty seconds to wow you sufficiently for a twenty cent tip.

Unlicensed   street

artists work in everything from chalk on concrete to spray paint on cardboard. The public decides whether they are good enough to continue working by either giving them money or not. The notion that there should be an official board of citizens to decide whether their work is really art would be considered ridiculous beyond comprehension.


It may be that

Costa Rica

is simply too poor to concern itself with regulating every trivial detail of their lives. I prefer to think they are too smart.


That is not to say there is no useless public sector charged with collecting small fees to stamp reams of papers. A day at immigration is enough to pry a confession from the most hardened criminal. The line at the National Bank of

Costa Rica

is an excellent place to practice deep breathing. The country is deeply socialist and has all the problems attendant upon everyone trying live at everyone else’s expense. But in the details of daily life and selecting an occupation, officialdom pretty much leaves you alone.


Not so in Key West, where even the city manager is not too busy to involve himself in protecting the public from faux art. How the city manager must have agonized over the tattoo guy’s status as a genuine artist. It must have been hell to follow his conscience and revoke permission for Unvar to earn his living. But what could he do? No self-respecting public official could allow a fake artist to bilk a gullible public. We’re not living in the Wild West where anyone with a paintbrush and some henna can plaster a design on an unsuspecting forearm.  Don’t try this at home! Allow only officially sanctioned artists to paint stuff on your body!


It must have been equally difficult for the wise and thoughtful members of the Art in Public Places board to deny Mr. Unvar his right to feed his family. I’m puzzled as to why the board was consulted at all. My understanding is that the board’s job is to deliver tax loot to their friends and colleagues, not to decide whether anything is or isn’t really art. 


And what a tough call the art/not art question is. Does the board’s decision mean the silver stand-still-as-a-statue guys are artists? I haven’t seen any silver guys in museums. And what about the jugglers, the cat trainers, the orange juice squeezers? Are they all artists? Do you have to be an artist to earn your living in public? Does the APP board have to declare you an artist for you to be one?


I admire Commissioner Verge’s efforts on Unvar’s behalf. The problem is that he, and everyone involved, thinks we’ll just fix things up to get Unvar a license and everything will be OK. The good commissioner implies that if the APP people or the ethically challenged Code Enforcement agents do not approve Mr. Unvar, that would just be too bad for him. Without official approval he will simply have to find some other line of work.


Commissioner Verge said, "It’s all a misunderstanding and we can fix it." The good commissioner means we will threaten, cajole and kiss the right rings to get a license for the tattoo guy. Unfortunately that is simply more of the same corrupt logrolling and rent seeking that set the system up in the first place. It wouldn’t fix anything.


A real fix would recognize that everyone has a right to earn an honest living. A real fix would acknowledge that rights cannot be taken away at the whim of corrupt officials or of the self-serving, the arrogant, the ignorant, or the ego-maniacal who have wormed their way into positions of power over their competition. A real fix would eliminate licensing or relegate it to a simple tax for an undeniable license available for the asking. A real fix would fix a corrupt and absurd system, not Mr. Unvar’s problem.

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