For 23 years, a pair of pert, painted, pasty-clad tits has greeted anyone strolling along 14th Street on South Beach. On any given day, you'll find a small crowd of locals, European tourists, and the odd bum gazing up at the vibrant mural of a mermaid riding on the back of a bald eagle. That's how you know you've arrived at Tattoos by Lou, one of the city's most storied tattoo parlors.
Just this week, however, Miami Beach code compliance officers have told Lou's to take down the famous mural. They argue that a touch-up back in 2000 means the painting no longer has a valid permit. Lou's owner and clients are pissed.
"That mural has been in movies, music videos, and fashion magazines," says shop owner Michelle Cameron. "I don't know where the city got this from all of a sudden, but I'm doing everything I can to keep it up."
Cameron remembers when her father, Lou, founded the store back in 1989. One of the first things he and his employees did was paint the mural, which originally featured a half-naked hula girl, not a mermaid.
"We took an old, dilapidated building and turned it around," she says. Miami Beach's modeling industry was booming, and Tattoos by Lou's mural quickly became a favorite backdrop. "The year after we opened, the mayor even gave us key to the city."
But times have changed, and all of a sudden the city gov doesn't seem too enthused about the mural.
The trouble started a couple of weeks ago when a code compliance officer told Cameron that the city no longer allowed murals. When she showed him her permit from the early 90s, he said that the shop should have paid for a new one back in 2000. A hurricane had damaged the mural, so it was repainted with the hula girl converted into a busty mermaid.
"The tattoo shop was cited ... for having signs on and within 10 feet of the windows without proper approvals/permits," says Nannette Rodriguez, a city spokeswoman. "She has since provided some documents that are being reviewed and has pulled a permit for the awning sign."
Cameron isn't buying the permit argument, however. She suspects that the flap might be about money, or have to do with her landlord, whom the city has been pressuring to fix-up or sell several of his properties.
"I see them harassing people who pay the taxes, but I don't see a crack down in the areas that need it," she says. "The streets are dirty and they smell like piss, excuse my language. And crime is up."
She also dismisses the idea that the mural's partial nudity could suddenly run afoul of the law.
"They are like pasties," she says of the mermaid's breasts. "There is really no nakedness going on. It's a mermaid for god's sake."
Whatever the cause of kerfuffle, Cameron says it would be a shame if the tattoo parlor lost its most iconic emblem.
"People come in every day and tell us, 'Lou gave me this tattoo 20 years ago.' Then they take photos in front of mural," she says.
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Cameron says she will go to City Hall today to argue her case.
"I'd be very disappointed if we had to take it down," she says. "It would definitely change things around here."