Tattoo Copyright: What You Need To Know

jentheripper in Guides

Your tattoo is finally finished, you've paid your artist and now you're ready to proudly show it to the rest of the world... But wait!

Are you really sure you truly own your tattoo??? Apparently, in our modern world, if money doesn't buy happiness, it doesn't buy the ownership of tattoos either... Creepy? Read further and think before your ink, this time for real!!! Tattoo, celebs and commercial use That may only apply to celebrities.

But hey! You can totally become famous tomorrow! And your tattoos could become a real legal mishmash... Because, yes, tattoos also have copyrights... Unless your body art is coming from a flash, a design chosen in the wall of your tattoo shop that thousands of people have chosen before you, you are wearing a custom tattoo, made exclusively for you by your artist. This custom status is making your tattoo the intellectual property of your artist.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression" and this include skin. If you have collaborated with your artist for the final result, you are both owners of the copyright. If he is the only one involved in the creation, he is the owner, giving the right to the client to display it.

As a celebrity, your tattoos are often a plus one. But you are also tied up with your tattoo artist, David Beckham can testify...
As a celebrity, your tattoos are often a plus one. But you are also tied up with your tattoo artist, David Beckham can testify...

The fact that Law is recognizing your tattoo artist as the owner of your custom tattoo's copyright doesn't mean you can't show it and get photographed with it. It means that you can't use it for commercial use without asking for his permission. Neither recreating the design in a medium intended for commercial use. This is a mistake often done by celebs, especially athletes. British football player David Beckham planned to use an angel tattoo created for him by tattooist Louis Molloy in an advertising campaign? Sued. American mixed martial arts fighter Carlos Condit has got his lion ribcage tattoo done by Christopher Escobedo reproduced on his digital self in video game UFC Undisputed? Sued. Powerful brand Nike and NBA player Rasheed Wallace wanted to use the tattoo made on the latter by Matthew Reed for shoe designs? Yes, sued again! No need to mention that a huge amount of money was involved...

Might is right... Using the tattoo of a celebrity without his consent nor those f his tattoo artist can put you into a fight... And you don't want to fight Mike Tyson, do you?
Might is right... Using the tattoo of a celebrity without his consent nor those f his tattoo artist can put you into a fight... And you don't want to fight Mike Tyson, do you?

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But famous tattoo owners are not the only ones to make big mistakes. If you love the tattoo of your favorite actress or top model and want the same, well that's your problem. But try to use the tattoo of a celeb for your business, and you will learn the meaning of copyright infringement. This happened to Warner Bros. when they released the sequel of movie The Hangover. Not only one of the actors was sporting a copy of Mike Tyson's facial tattoo in the film, but the image was used for the advertising campaign. The tattoo artist of Tyson, Victor Whitmill, didn't appreciate that and accused the movie firm of stealing his design. What's more, Tyson had signed an agreement stating that Whitmill alone owned the rights of the tattoo. Ouch! See the above picture? Guess who won... Casual clients don't sign a copyright agreement, but more and more famous clients are advised to do so to protect themselves and the firms associated with them. Is it going to become common in the future for every kind of client?

You got it, don't take the risk to joke with the tattoo of a powerful person... Fair use is not always accepted as an excuse by courts. And what about tattooed portraits of celebs? Stars are public persons. You see them through the work of photographers and in movies, the property of studios. Lots of copyright here, before even mentioning that a person owns the rights of her image. Beware when you decide to get a tattoo inspired by a living person, who could be offensed. Same with an existing design owned by a brand or a firm. The only way you could sort it is by arguing of free artistic expression and transforming the original photo or design. So, better make some modifications before inking Hello Kitty or Justin Bieber in your body, just in case ... ;) Tattoo inspired by existing art That's another problem. Your tattoo artist owns the right of his own creations. But if you ask him to reproduce your favorite work of art, made by a living artist, would you have problems?

Amazing tattoo by Rember Orellana inspired by a painting of Karole Bak.
Amazing tattoo by Rember Orellana inspired by a painting of Karole Bak.

Artists own the copyright of their art. Put it in books, posters, etc without their permission and they will sue you. But on skin? The polite way is always the best. Ask the artist his permission before going to your tattoo shop, or ask your tattooist to do it (from artist to artist it can be better, and perhaps they know or respect each others). Most of the time, artists are very happy to see their art ending on someone else's body.

A tattoo by Zoey Taylor according an illustration by Audrey Kawasaki.
A tattoo by Zoey Taylor according an illustration by Audrey Kawasaki.

Not asking is rude. And perhaps dangerous. It never happened before, but if an artist would sue a tattooist and a client, what would happen? Would the client have to undergo laser removal??? Or pay for the use of the design? Some artists are selling their designs to tattoo artists and clients. So, your mother was right: a polite request and a thank you is the least you could do... and perhaps the best.

Tattoo made by John Maxx but inspired by Dmitry Vorsin.
Tattoo made by John Maxx but inspired by Dmitry Vorsin.
Left, a tattoo by Matkovski Calin. Right, the art of Antonio Mora.
Left, a tattoo by Matkovski Calin. Right, the art of Antonio Mora.

Tattoo copycats Your tattoo is finally finished, you've paid your artist, you are not a celeb planning to sell your image and this tattoo was not inspired by someone else's work of art, so you are very very very eager to show it to the world... You proudly allow your tatto artist to put it in his online portfolio, and yourself make several photos visible on all the social networks of the planet, hoping to see it in blogs, online and paper magazines all around the world! You're so proud!!!! But, wait. Is the tattoo you just stumble upon ... A F***ING COPY OF YOUR TATTOO????

copy cat?
copy cat?

Alas, this is the problem with internet. Someone could see your tattoo, and with a great lack of imagination and personality, decide to get the same tattoo. Real tattoo artists are banning their clients from bringing references directly linked to existing tattoos. Real artists don't copy the work of other artists. But some despicable and talentless people claiming to be tattoo artists don't hesitate to copy. And you know what? People with very poor moral standards usually do very poorly done replicas. In tattoo trade, they are called copycats.

Left, an original tattoo by Silvano Fiato and right, a copycat.
Left, an original tattoo by Silvano Fiato and right, a copycat.

Copy is the highest form of flattery? Some tattoo artists with an admirable sense of humor will refer to this old saying. But copying an existing tattoo is both offensive for the original artist and his client. Some tattoo owners are very hurt to discover their "belongings" has been stolen. Don't be an a**hole, don't steal! And especially if you get an awful tattoo. Sure, it is more expensive and difficult to get a tattoo by a good tattoo artist. But don't be lame, use your money for quality work that hasn't been copied!

Tattoo master Niki Norberg (tattoo on the center) is taking it with humor, but his copycats are really bad (left and right).
Tattoo master Niki Norberg (tattoo on the center) is taking it with humor, but his copycats are really bad (left and right).

A tattoo is a personal process, something very intimate. Be original and get a design made for you, and not inspired by someone's else art. Be respectful of the work of the artists, especially the one of your tattoo artist. And if you are a star, or plan to become one, stay humble and show gratitude to the ones who have contributed to make you what you are... You've been warned!

Would you like seeing a copy of your tattoo on someone else? Left by Anabi and right by copycat.
Would you like seeing a copy of your tattoo on someone else? Left by Anabi and right by copycat.

Sources: The Copyright Implications of Tattoos by Timothy C. Bradley, Who owns your tattoo copyright by Marisa Kakoulas for Inked Magazine, The Official Blog for Things&Ink, and Tatouage Magazine.

jentheripper

@JenTheRipper

Writer for art related medias. Fell in love with tattoo while researching for another passion, crime history. Travelling, admiring, sharing.

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