I’ve been a tattoo artist in California for twenty-five years and currently run my own tattoo parlor, Captive Hearts Tattoo. As an artist and small business owner, I’ve worked with people from all walks of life to create all kinds of tattoos—from small bunnies on wrists to entire dragon scenes on backs. One thing I know from my experience: I should have the freedom to choose the images I create and those I don’t. That’s because my artistic choices express my values and beliefs. What I create, what I say, and what I affirm matters to me. It matters to most Americans. Who wants to say something they don’t agree with?
But last spring, I learned that officials in Colorado were trying to force Lorie Smith—a Colorado-based website designer and graphic artist—to design custom websites expressing a message that went against her sincere beliefs. As an artist and business owner myself, that didn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t sit idly by.
So I decided to join a friend-of-the-court brief in Lorie’s case, 303 Creative v. Elenis. I and others urged the U.S. Supreme Court to protect Lorie’s First Amendment freedom to choose which messages to promote through her custom designs. I believe that freedom of expression is a compass that points towards the larger society’s freedom. I thought Colorado’s treatment of expression was headed in the wrong direction.
Today, the Supreme Court set Colorado straight. The Court reiterated that the government cannot tell Americans what to say or how to express themselves. Each of us gets to decide what to say and what not to say. That freedom protects Lorie. It also protects other Americans like me as well.
Decisions about what to say—whether through our words or our artistic creations—belong to each individual. For me personally, there are lots of tattoos I simply cannot create for anyone. Those decisions are based on my personal beliefs and my own experiences as a tattoo artist. That’s true of most of the tattoo artists I know.
For example, I cannot create tarot card tattoos. They’re currently trendy. Many tattoo artists are happy to ink them. But I disagree with the fortune-telling premise of and message behind tarot cards. And I can’t create artwork that contradicts my beliefs. I’m sure other artists draw different lines. But it’s the artist’s line to draw—not the government’s.
At the same time, when I meet with potential customers about the unique tattoo they’re asking me to design, I never consider the customer’s identity. Instead, I review every request on a case-by-case basis to determine if the requested tattoo itself would say something or celebrate an idea, value, or concept consistent with my beliefs. If it does, I can move forward. If it doesn’t, I can’t.
The truth is that artists like Lorie and me can serve everyone who walks into our studios while simultaneously choosing which messages we express through our work. That’s how most Americans operate. We treat everyone with respect, but it doesn’t mean we have to support and promote everything someone else wants us to. We are not always going to agree with everyone on everything. And that’s what makes America so unique—we have the freedom to be who we are.
That’s why I’m so thankful the Supreme Court confirmed this freedom in 303 Creative. That’s a win for everyone. It’s a win for artists who continue to be free to create consistent with their convictions. It’s a win for Americans who don’t want the government to tell them what they must (or cannot) say. And it’s a win for a diverse society that prevents the government from compelling speech through its own say-so.
It disturbed me to see Colorado officials try to compel Lorie’s speech and take her First Amendment freedoms away from her. That is why I supported Lorie’s case. Lorie’s freedom is all of our freedom. And thankfully we’re more free today than we were yesterday.