America has undoubtedly become a tattooed nation. Over the last couple of decades, body piercings, tattoos and other forms of body modifications have gone from taboo to trendy.
Despite common knowledge that piercings and other body modifications were somehow “reintroduced” to Western societies during the 20th century, these art forms have existed for well over 5,000 years, and were common throughout history.
It wasn’t until the first half of the 1900s that piercings and tattoos were deemed culturally unacceptable by Western culture and America. For a time, even women simply getting their ears pierced was frowned upon.
Thanks to the help of several groups and individuals from the 1960s on, these alterations have now shed their unwarranted vilification and have become an accepted form of expression.
Right here in Northeast Florida, Jacksonville Beach is no different, with body modifications being displayed by nearly everyone — at least today.
Just as recently as 1994, body piercings were an unregulated industry at the Beaches, because basically, no one was even doing it yet.
“By the mid-90s, we started hearing about body piercing,” Greg Conley, owner of Carribbean Connection, said. “There was only one other place in town doing it. It was a completely unregulated industry at the time.”
Greg and his older brother, Mike Conley, who initially opened Carribbean Connection back in 1990, after moving from Pittsburgh, started the business as a wholesaler of imported goods from the Carribbean, hence the name. Soon after, the store was changed to strictly retail and began selling a wide array of consumer products.
The current location, which is found off 3rd Street and 8th Avenue South, is located right next door to it’s original address. Mike and his partner at the time lived upstairs in the building that currently houses Breezy Coffee Shop, and used the ground floor as a retail space.
Carribbean Connection was the first location to introduce body piercings to Jacksonville Beach during a time when they weren’t quite so accepted, especially by the conservative leadership of the Beaches at the time.
After hiring a piercer, who had made a bit of a name for himself in Orlando, the store became the first to offer piercings, but soon found out that breaking new ground often meant stirring up controversy.
“I had become really close with all the local law enforcement, since I worked the door at a local club,” Greg said. “One of them came to our store on a Sunday, and he said, ‘I got 500 calls today about you doing illegal body piercing.’”
The officer told the Conley brothers he needed to investigate their shop, but found nothing wrong with their setup.
Just four days later, the city of Jacksonville Beach sent a letter to the store, stating that they could, and would, regulate this new industry. They requested that the shop pay a $2,500 annual licensing fee, which would force the Conleys to close the doors on their newly opened piercing studio.
“This town [Jacksonville Beach], wasn’t quite ready for stores like ours, industries like tattooing, hence the fee of $2,500,” Greg said. “Once you crossed the ditch [to Jacksonville], the fee was like $300.”
The Conleys tried to fight the fee and hired a friend who was an attorney, appearing shortly thereafter at a town hall meeting addressing the piercing issue.
After fighting with the town and angry residents, the Conleys decided that it was costing them too much time and money. They decided to open a tattoo parlour in their store, pay the $2,500 fee and hope for the best.
The effort would eventually pay off for Carribbean Connection, as the store would ultimately expand and broaden its consumer base, even opening a second location in 1995 and a music store a few years later.
“Tattooing and piercing has become such an enormous part of our identity and our business,” Greg said. “Our business has always really been about our customers being able to come in and express themselves, whether it was through fashion, music, tattoos or piercings.”
If not for groundbreaking businesses like Carribbean Connection, body modifications and similar industries could have taken many more years to become culturally accepted in Jacksonville Beach. Thankfully, Greg and his brothers were willing to take a chance on a newly formed industry, and ultimately brought some welcomed change to our city.
“One thing that I’m so grateful for is that we’ve just had amazing staff over the years,” Greg said. “This community has welcomed us with open arms, and I consider this home.”
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