Guen Douglas: How To Avoid Tattoo Plagiarism

By Guen Douglas
It’s been so long since I’ve last written. so much has been going on in my life; a move from Amsterdam’s Salon Serpent to Brighton’s Magnum Opus and a couple of conventions back to back after the move (Brighton and Milan) have kept me busy. But I’m back with a few ideas for upcoming TAM Blogs, so keep posted.

This month’s TAM Blog was inspired by one of my client’s tattoos that keeps being copied… 

Plagiarism can be a tricky topic to cover. Why is it done, and how can we together (clients and tattooers) eliminate this practice? One problem is that no one wants to take responsibility. Tattooers blame clients for bringing in photos from the Internet of tattoos they want and I blame lazy tattooers who don’t want to draw, won’t take the time to educate their clients or explain to them that the tattoo belongs to someone else and that they should/could get something of their own.

No one owns an idea, but duplicate images can be really disappointing to clients that have sought after an artist and gone through the process of getting a one-of-a-kind tattoo. I had one of the copy-cat artists write to me on Facebook and they told me they thought the tattoo in question was flash…

“My client brought in a print out of the design saying that she had fallen in love with it, and that she would like the tattoo. I did not know that it was a custom piece. I thought the design had been taken from a flash painting.”

Flash designs are a staple in many and most tattoo shops. They are the designs all over the walls and books that you can choose from. Artists and tattooers design these for the purpose of replication, meaning, anyone can get these designs by any artist. They are meant to be tattooed over and over again.

I would suggest to artists and clients that if you don’t see the design on the flash sheet it came from, that you cannot assume the design is flash and available to be replicated on another client.

Original By Guen Douglas

One of the copies of Natacha’s dress tattoo is really not a copy, not in the way the others are traced from photographs taken from the Internet, but how would you feel if you were either client?

As tattooers we are all guilty to a certain amount of plagiarism. Many tattooers work from photos, tattoos, flash, tattooer art and non-tattooer art as reference. There is a difference between looking at reference to help you draw somethings and straight-up tracing it.

It happens all the time and of course there are exceptions, flash designs from sheets or from flash websites, photo-realism and replicating non-tattooer art, (but even that can be tricky. I recently replicated a painting done by artist Milk, and I feel like I should have e-mailed and asked permission.

I don’t ever do reproductions so it makes me feel funny. The best I can do now is to make sure that credit is given properly. We all borrow little bits and pieces from each other, little things like the way a leaf is shaded, color schemes or a cool way of drawing teeth on a skull etc…

But I believe that’s a normal sharing of ideas amongst peers. What I’m talking about here is taking a photo of a tattoo on someones body or a commissioned art piece found online or brought in by a client and replicating it on a client as-is.

Original By Phil Kyle

Many people would say that if you don’t want the risk of having your tattoo “stolen” by someone else, not to post it online, but really in this day and age that’s an absurdity.

Life these days includes an online presence. This is especially true for people in the limelight. Their work is often copied, for example, David Beckham’s Angel backpeice, Tommy Lee’s “Mayhem” stomach rocker and Kat Von D’s face stars and closer to home alternative models, both Gogo Blackwater and Amina Munster have had their chest pieces plagiarized.

Visible tattoos are going to be in every snapshot. It is really the responsibility of clients to demand personal work and of tattooers to educate their clients on the benefits of getting their own version, not on the passive wearer of the original tattoo.

It is also up to us to educate young and new tattooers. Many don’t realize that’s it not to be done. When I first started tattooing I worked at a shop where it was fairly normal practice to print and trace tattoos and images from the Net, (especially for walk-ins) which I think seems pretty common practice at most street shops. But also they do it on TV too, right?

Original By Jeremy Sutton

As an apprentice I thought, “Oh, I can trace this little thing, but when it ‘matters’ then I’ll draw it,” because that’s what I saw around me. What I didn’t realize is that if the small stuff doesn’t matter when does it begin to matter?

It started to dawn on me after reading TAM’s issue #2 with Grime that I needed a good foundation if I was to accomplish anything worthwhile, and that if you didn’t care about the small things when would you begin to care about the bigger things? To be honest it can be taken as a metaphor for life really, but that’s another blog, ha-ha…

Everything changed for me that day. From then as best I could I gave each tattoo I did the same attention and stopped tracing from the Net. I take pictures of nearly every tattoo I do because every tattoo I do should be good enough to go in my portfolio, (sadly my photo skills often screw that up and I am not a laser cutter so sometimes I am not 100% satisfied with my work) but that’s what I aim for.

So with that all said, how do you as a client get the best from your tattoo artist Personally (I can’t speak for other tattooers) my favourite client “reference packages” often include one or all of the following:

Sketch: This can be original artwork, a little doodle, Photoshop document, photo collage or an Microsoft paint document. I like these to illustrate layout. Naturally, this only applies if you have a specific layout in mind! If you aren’t sure about what you want layout-wise let your tattooer suggest to you what they think will work best and if you have a specific layout idea be ready and open to suggestions.

Sometimes what you have in mind doesn’t physically work. The “sketch” doesn’t have to be good! Basically, if you have an expectation we need to know it. So I find these very useful. They are the closest thing to a vulcan mind-meld. Ha-ha.

Photo Reference: (Think, mini mood board.) This can be photos of tattoos, photos of subject matter etc… I’ve had clients leave little notes on each photo with things like, “I like the colors in this, I like the flowers here… In this tattoo I like the gemstones,” and “Don’t like how busy this is,” even things you don’t like can be included!

If there’s something you would hate to have included add it to the list! Ideally, it’s nice to have these all on one page but not everyone has access to photoshop so a paper folder, Zip file e-mailed or a CD works, and remember to find out in what format your tattoo shop prefers.

When you have well organized photo reference it makes it easier for your tattooer to interpret your ideas into a design you will be excited to get! Just be sure that if there’s a specific tattoo you really like in your reference that the tattooer knows you aren’t looking for a replica but your own original tattoo! Demand no less! And tattooers, if someone asks you to copy a tattoo, say NO! It’s your reputation on the line!

Photos of Tattoos by the Tattooer: I love it when people identify the photos in my portfolio they were drawn to. it becomes easier to assess in which direction to take their drawing. there’s nothing worse than having a client bring you a stack of tattoos by someone else and ask you to replicate. i figure if you love that guy/gal, get tattooed by them.

So when you’ve picked out a portfolio you like at a shop and you have an opportunity to speak directly to the tattooer you can show them the photos you liked in their portfolio, show them your idea (sketch/layout/document) and reference photos. It’ll make it easier for them to understand what it is you are looking to get. Make sure to listen to the tattooer’s suggestions. They will not only tell you if your idea works, but if works for them. Tattooers all have different skill sets. You might be asking the wrong tattooer to embark on this project with you.

If you feel like you’re being led too far away from the original idea maybe you need to keep looking, but at the same time perhaps what you are looking for isn’t possible at all. There are limitations to skin and not every design that looks good on paper can look good on skin. Check out the earlier blog on the process of getting a custom tattoo for more information.

So in the end, it’s up to both sides (clients and tattooers) to stop this plagiarism from happening. The Internet isn’t going anywhere so it’s up to us to draw the line between what is acceptable idea-sharing and what is plagiarism. We also have to remember that the vast abyss that is the internet is built up of people. I think that’s really what happens, we forget the human aspect and become selfish and self-centered, We want the tattoo that we found online, we want to make the money from that client or get the opportunity to do something cool.

We have to remember that these images were created are sometimes for hugely personal reasons. Most tattooers find copies annoying but can also find them a compliment. For clients it can be devastating to know that a tattoo they collaborated with and artist to get, has been copied by someone else. Especially so if there was a deeper meaning for the client behind the image. So let’s all put a little more effort into the process and create some awesome tattoos together! Those we can all agree to like.

(Guen is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine, and can be found at Magnum Opus Tattoo in Brighton, England.)



Related Guen Douglas TAM Blog Posts:

Similar Articles

13 thoughts on “Guen Douglas: How To Avoid Tattoo Plagiarism

  1. You’ve explained really well where the line should be between idea-sharing and plagiarism, and I completely agree. I’ve been on a forum with Natacha and have witnessed her beautiful tattoo get copied over and over again – I was shocked and even upset/angry even though this isn’t my tattoo. I can’t imagine what something like that must feel like, and then having people say they think you should take it as a compliment.

    As a photographer, I’ve had the same problem. People have stolen my images and posted them online as their own, but people have also copied a complete photo idea and composition and way of editing, but photographed it themselves. It’s always hard to argue on something being ‘inspired by’ or ‘copied from’, but to me it’s plain obvious in most cases. It’s just a matter of common sense.

  2. “As tattooers we are all guilty to a certain amount of plagiarism.”
    …and much, much more than most would admit. Even the one’s seemingly riding the high road in judgement of all those out to ‘steal’ their original art.

    Unless you’ve gone out and created the reference (idea), photographed it and drawn it out (like Guy A does with his bio work) it might be time to step down from the high horse.

    Pick any genre of tattooing and you’ll find plagiarism. From the realism artist who bases their gorilla on a photograph they’ve not asked permission or paid to use as a referenc
    The tattooer who reference’s the Ukiyo-e Masters ideas and art to build on, never giving credit to the artist with the ‘original idea’.

    The american old school tattooer who thinks that because they added A or B to an old school reference, the reference they used is owed no dues.

    Traditional tribal work. No need to say anything on that one.

    I couldn’t even begin to count the number of Derrick Rigg’s orginal Eddie designs are out the in tattoo form, where no dues we paid, no permission asked.
    Sylvia Ji girls…how many tattooers have given her a nickle?
    I could go on, and on, and on.

    With the ease of access to a vast array of original (and not so original) art work available today on the Internet I don’t see plagiarism in tattooing diminishing anytime soon. One thing we could all do a little more is pay some dues though. If I find a photograph on deviantart (for example) that I think would be a great reference, I’ll ask permission and gift the photographer a piece of art they have in their wish list or buy them a membership. Another idea is to spend the money on great reference books (not the Ebay ripoffs for a 10th of the price) instead of stealing art and photographs off the net. Buy their art, dvds, books and be inspired all while paying your dues in a small way. It feels good and with all that inspiration, why it might even spark and original idea or two.

  3. Chiara Bautista (Milk) is really great about granting permission for her work to be used for tattoos. All she asks for in return is a photo of the finished piece. I have a tattoo in progress based off of a few of her pieces 🙂

    Unfortunately, I’ve had 2 of my tattoos copied and it sucks. My artist is such a great guy and takes pains to ensure that every piece he does on me is completely original (the exception being the Chiara piece I mentioned above) and it’s such a bummer to find out that someone has copied my idea/his work. I have a memorial piece on my arm that was copied down to the placement and text. I found out when they submitted it to a blog that I run and they were so pleased with themselves for *their* “completely original tattoo”. Anyways, I love this post and wish that more people understood that copying someone else’s tattoo isn’t cool. I’m sure that a lot of them could care less, but I just really wish they would consider how the artist and the person with the original on their body feels when they see that their piece has been stolen. At least (in most cases that I’ve seen) the copies never look as great as the original does.

  4. Well said, Guen. A difficult and touchy subject for our trade. Being a consumer ‘art’, it seems tattooing appeals to many people’s fashion sense. With the proliferation of tattoo imagery into popular culture, i have seen a shift away from the personalized journey that used to be ubiquitous in our clients. Increasingly, there seems to be an overtly fashionable and wanton motivation toward being tattooed, both in choices of motif (many brought in from page 2 of a g**gle images result as we’re all acquainted with) as well as placement and coverage (how many sleeves have you done as a first tattoo lately? giant rib panels? 18 y/o wanting neck or hands ‘blasted’ with corporate logos?). The imagery is available and photography (including TV, www, and magazines) has demystified the placement and application. With most towns having no less than 4 tattoo shops to choose from, it’s easy to see how the line is clearly drawn in a potential customer’s mind; appreciate, appropriate, purchase. Without the wordiness, our job is to give the folks what they want, and more and more the folks just want the easy, cheap, uninspired stuff. Look at the shit on cable TV or the stuff trending online, there are a LOT of people with questionable taste that now have found out how cool tattooing is.

    Of course it lies in the tattooers’ hands to provide a service that least undermines the artistic vision and individuality of the creator of the given image, most especially if they are one of our fellow craftspeople. I LOVE the line of distinction that you have drawn “…that if you didn’t care about the small things when would you begin to care about the bigger things?”. Ultimately this philosophy will keep our work fresh and our integrity in place!!

    Cheers to everyone who is trying as hard as they can to elevate tattooing and themselves and cheers to all you flash wearing tattooed people out there! I personally strive to make every tattoo that i do (outside of the odd logo) a one of a kind amulet, but do know that on the flipside i wear a fairly straight-up Water’s Battle Royale as my backpiece. Ha!!

  5. Good RIP! I do agree that most Tattoo Artist are guilty to a point but just like a copyright goes…if it is changed by at least 20% it does not infringe on the copywright so those who do not cut and paste and use thier own style of the creation should be okay to go.

  6. I’ve had a shinobi tattoo on my leg for years now. my friend also now wants a shinobi tattoo on his arm. we both trained ninjitsu so it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. i’m not sure if i should be insulted or honored:) i just like being an original and it wouldn’t be the first time someone showed up with my tat idea on them. (tribal on my calf.) maybe i should just shut up and deal with it:) what do u think? anyone.

Comments are closed.