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.
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.
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?
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.