is difficult to identify a more personalized statement or method of
collaborative endorsement than utilizing our bodies as canvases,
permanently marking one’s skin. Tattooists might constitute some of the
most prolific producers of artwork. Their client’s tattooed compositions
are more broadly and readily visible than works done perhaps in nearly
any other medium. Yet within the tattooing field sufficiently detailed
or serious analysis of activity as well as associated technological and
socioeconomic impacts are rarely accorded.
We turn briefly to an
article from New Zealand. As is most common with online tattoo-related
writings, content often primarily serves as an advertisement vehicle for
images hyping inking as a practice and is then peppered by quotations
from a handful of easily contactable [often just mainstream] artists.
Implications of copyrighting tattoo designs and associated body art
forms, particularly completed tattoo works, are however worth exploring
in greater detail:
“Tattoo artists calling for right to have
copyright on their work | There’s an unwritten rule in New Zealand –
decent tattoo artists don’t copy designs. Right now the Copyright Act
1994 is under review, and artists behind the ink say stricter
legislation could protect original tattoo designs. House of Natives
founder Gordon Toi would champion tattoo protection. “I would like to
see some kind of governance over Maori tattooing and Polynesian
tattooing… there’s so much exploitation.” Original designs were often
replicated, often overseas without even talking to the New Zealand
artist, he said.
“Skin is probably the hardest thing to copyright,
because everyone is copying it.” Pacific Tattoo owner Tim Hunt wanted
artists to respect the meaning of Maori and Pacific cultural patterns
and symbols. “Any artist could say, I can do you a design that has korus
and looks Maori”, Hunt said.
“But if you want something
authentic, you will have to go somewhere else.” Overseas, tattoo artists
are suing when their designs appear on in the media, like television.
In 2011, the artist of Mike Tyson’s Maori-inspired facial tattoo sued
Warner Bros over a depiction of similar facial art on a character in The
Hangover: Part II. If copyright law protected cultural images, Hunt
would respect the change. “I want more tattoo artists to stand up and
say: ‘I don’t know enough about it, I don’t know the history behind it,
and I don’t know the context behind it’.” Overseas, tattoo artists
replicate images without a second thought.
New Zealand was
different, he said. “It’s kind of an unspoken code in New Zealand that
you just don’t do that.” Hunt believed the customer owned the tattoo,
not the artist. Union Tattoo owner Craigy Lee agreed there was an
unwritten code of conduct to not copy a custom tattoo. Decent artists
would not dare to make money from someone else’s design, he said.
University of Auckland associate professor Alex Sims said technically
what is currently occurring in New Zealand is probably copyright
infringement – under the banner of artwork. However Sims cautioned
against strict enforcement of copyright laws on tattoos, which could
include removal of tattoos, preventing the tattoos appearance in films
and advertisements, or requiring the removal of tattoos from social
media.”It would give the copyright owner the power to control images of a
person, which would be extremely concerning and just wrong.”
Tattoo vs art
use in the tattooing world, a distinction between copyrighting designed
or applied tattoo artwork must be made. We address professional
practitioners tattooing as their sustainable, primary means of income.
may have multiple images and other as yet non-applied media content
such as designs, compositions, sketches or custom artworks. Like
representations of various traditional art forms, these are relatively
easy to recorded as well as upload allowing clear digital ascription of
Separately, as worn by clients, tattooists
typically have portfolios of tattooed pieces. Using a three-dimensional
canvas introduces complexities to automated digital identification. In
numerous image copyright tracking software, positioning alone can
entirely throw off investigation techniques. While Instagram and
alternate photo uploading databases offer some form of time-stamped
verification but, due to comparatively openly editable structures
subsequent source and ownership attribution can become diluted. Whether
tattooist’s produced artwork is documented on skin or another type of
canvas is the first practical distinction.
Artist vs technician
order for copyrighting considerations to be adequately reviewed,
grouping serves as a tattoo industry specific starting categorizations.
On one side of the tattooing art form creative spectrum there are those
tattoo artists only implementing their style and techniques.
reflections on how tattoo artist’s styles and aesthetics may have been
derived or inspired, the tattoo artist’s works are independently
recognizable as “being theirs”. In a senses, the tattoo artist has a
Proportionately with other creative mediums,
the tattoo artist has a particular vision, knowledge and or expertise
that may not be readily substituted for or by anyone else. The tattoo
artist can therefore be classified as practicing the tattooing craft so
as to convey a unique style and or furthering the continuation of a
single aesthetic or technique.
Tattoo technicians may have
distinct portfolios of completed, tattooed, works. While the tattoos in
such portfolios cannot be exactly replicated, such unique quality
attributes are due primarily to placement on a bespoke canvas, i.e. on
one entirely individual person. The cohesive result is bespoke rather
than the isolation of a composition. Likewise such tattooed work is
formed within specific, often non-reproducible proportions. The
resulting tattoo may indeed be faithfully replicated by any number of
other tattoo technicians, albeit on a different exclusive canvas.
as proportionate to qualified technicians in any field, a tattoo
technician may be substituted with no inherent loss or degradation to
results. A technician is the tattooist physically and technically
capable of applying categories of tattoos yet may do so indiscriminately
in regards to a single style, size, technique, aesthetic and or design.
Capacity rather than artistic temperament or vision here is the
Tradition vs technique
artists may be thought of [as just two examples from millions] Ondrash
conveying a unique aesthetic to Horioshi III in Japan continuing the
culturally rich art of tebori. Both being solely in the tattoo artist’s
jurisdiction, delimitation of copyrighting unique compositions as
opposed to reproductions of traditional iconography forms another
Like any configuration in the more
classically mainstream mediums such as painting, such a dichotomy is not
to state that tattoo art itself necessarily neither neatly falls onto
one side. As with all artistic pursuits, sources of inspiration as well
as subjectively justifiable conclusions that the same compositions
labelled as ‘homage’ by some or ‘theft’ to others remains to be
objectively qualified in any manner whatsoever. As often said, good
artists copy – great artists steal. In practical terms though the tattoo
artist producing traditionally inspired works may automatically and
logically be precluded from copyrighting registration of tattooed art
off of the human canvas.
Copyrights vs claims
may be a twofold purpose of copyright registration. Firstly this
functions as externally verified recognition, by a third party, of
bespoke or attributed authorship. Such adds credibility, weight and or
authority to content. Not least of which often lending substance to
Secondly the purpose of holding a copyright
ownership registration could be preparation for cataloguing proceedings
when initiating formalized legal protections. These proceedings
nonetheless require the violator(s) be identified, engaged with, refuse
to honor the registration and then successfully convicted in a manner
constrained by their geographically applicable court(s) of law.
Quantification of receivable remuneration depends on violator’s accurate
identification, owned content’s documented use, set culpability through
response and achievable legal ramifications as determined in part by
physical location. All form notable, complicating factors.
Recognition vs protection
has been found as commonplace for a tattooist to use the designs or
even completed tattooed portfolio pieces of another. While a large
portion of accredited tattoo artwork is searchable online, sheer volumes
accessible via disparate sources fractures attempts for single point
[i.e. one tattooist’s]
crediting. The illicit or unauthorized use of
tattooed works conceivably only being in printed or offline portfolios,
as with those shown to studio clientele. Tattoos often serve as an
individually enacted and privately held art form.
and thereby essentially public ‘registration’ of tattooed works may
therefore purposefully not exist. Its wearer could have requested this.
factors translate into an ability for tattoo technicians, dealing
directly with individual clients, to potentially be quite liberal in
statements of completed works as well as, by extension, claimed
tattooing experience or expertise.
In a practical manner, the
motivations or impetus for copyright ownership registration of tattoo
works apply more broadly to the tattoo artist and perhaps only as form
of registration of completed portfolios to the technician. While
achievable remuneration or punitive actions against copyright ownership
violators is far from universally predictable, a focus on digitally
time-stamping both tattoo artwork and portfolios through say blockchain
verification is the first step towards assurances of authenticity.
However used the creator now has immutable, single-source substantiation
As with the technology’s decentralized capacity, ability of trust reallocation onto individual sources as opposed to ‘hubs’ equates to potentially ushering in a new standard of work verification. This is hugely significant for the client in the process selection. For tattoo artists the effects and benefits of copyright ownership through blockchain are also significant.