I’m biting my lip as the drilling noise whirs angrily, Grover the blue muppet flies reassuringly overhead, his matted blue fur and superhero cape a reminder not to take anything too seriously. The streets outside are crawling with strange parcel laden pink pudgy creatures who have been corraled off a monstrous ship.
This is Duval Street, Key West, the cruise ships have arrived and I am lying on a black leather couch in Southernmost Tattoo, voluntarily being subjected to skin piercing needles.
I’ve succumbed to the Key West Fever. This is the land of body ink. And live bands. And happy holiday makers in various stages of drunkenness, doing the ‘Duval crawl’. This place is alive, it hums. The locals are hippies and vagabonds and beautiful square pegs that gloriously don’t fit anywhere else.
In Key West even basic transportation has flair. From the pink taxi service to the three wheel motorcycles and the throngs and throngs of decorated bicycles. Key Westers get around in style. And economically.
This place can be expensive. A basic one bedroom apartment rents for over $2000 a month. Holiday rentals cost that per week. The houses, between the palms, bouganvilla and massive Banyan trees that line the old town streets, can run between $700k and $6 million to buy.
Yet the jobs around here are all of the minimum wage variety. There are also gravel parking lots and derelict boats where you can live for free. And they do. Key West has the largest per capita homeless population in the states. But it’s also got great soup kitchens and a great climate.
So it’s a mix of the eccentric with money and tattoos, homeless squatters with tattoos, Harley gangs with tattoos, musicians and bartenders with tattoos, boaters with tattoos and of course the tourists. Even they have a lot of tattoos. This place is inked.
There are pirates and transvestites and too many dogs in strollers to count. Only in Key West could you find a cat, chilled enough to ride the town in a baby carriage as well.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, there are the chickens. Hundreds of thousands of chickens. Red roosters crowing at all hours on every street corner, chickens causing traffic jams, pet chickens and chicken art. Everywhere. It’s just a thing here and you gotta love it or Key West just ain’t for you.
And these are the ‘normal’ days. Key Westers really like to let their 'love lights shine' through on special occasions. They host an annual Pet Masquerade where animals are dyed many colours and dressed up like pirates and sharks and transvestite pirate sharks and anything else you could imagine and far beyond that.
Their Fantasy Fest each October is apparently something you have to witness to believe. Everyone parades the streets dressed in not much more than body paint and the usual drinking and debauchery gets way way way out of hand. Sounds like such fun!!!
We were here for New Years Eve, where a massive sparkling stiletto shoe, housing an equally sparkling drag queen is ceremoniously lowered into the crowds at midnight.
Anything goes. And I can’t get enough of it.
Every day, we head off the boats, leaving them bobbing out in the anchorage, to discover a new corner of this quirky place. From the street performer in tall yellow cat socks who trains cats to jump through hoops, to the ‘warrior of the streets’, a wiry leather skinned man on a bicycle with all his worldly belongings and signature face paint, on every block you see something. You will never be bored here.
Key West is Mile Zero, the southernmost point of America, the beginning of the US1. Depending on how you view it, Key West is the very bottom or the pinnacle of what America can be. It’s the Conch Republic. Laid back, accepting, fun centric, open minded, artistically inspiring. Here, you can paint a chicken on a coconut or paint a naked body or get a tattoo. And we do!