It 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
For 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.
Tattooists 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 copyright ownership.
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
In 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.
Forgoing 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 stylistic monopoly.
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.
And 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 limiting factor.
Tradition vs technique
Tattoo 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 noteworthy separation.
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
There 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 sales pricing.
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
It 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.
Online display and thereby essentially public ‘registration’ of tattooed works may therefore purposefully not exist. Its wearer could have requested this.
These 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 of ownership.
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.