Flattery, Thievery, Or Just Plain Business?

By Deb Yarian


photo 1

Almost daily, people come in to my shop with drawings or illustrations that they want tattooed on them.
More times than not they get them on line- Pinterest or another source, without a clue as to who the original artist is.
Now I am not speaking of a photo of an existing tattoo done by a known to you, or unknown to you tattoo artist.
My question is – as a tattooer, is it my responsibility to search for the artist, contact them and ask for their permission to do a tattoo based on or directly from their artwork?
I ask this question because i’ve read a few blogs and articles on the subject of plagiarism recently regarding tattoos, and it started affecting how I do business…
Case in point- a girl came in to my shop to make an appointment- she has with her a line drawing of flowers surrounded by Victorian scrollwork. It’s a lovely design that I would enjoy tattooing. I ask her if she drew it? To which she replies, “No, I found it on Pinterest.” So I delve deeper. I ask if there was a signature or credit given to an artist?  Was she able to track back to an original post? But she had no idea who drew it, if it was drawn to be tattooed (which it looks like) which would lead me to believe that it was drawn by a tattooer.
photo 4 photo 2
Now, I have in my mind that to tattoo this image as is, would be plagiarism. So I say to the girl  “I can draw something similar to this drawing, something original for you.” To which she replies, “No, I like the drawing I brought to you, I want the tattoo to look exactly like the drawing that I brought to you!”
So do I or don’t I tattoo the image?
Do I refuse to tattoo images that are of unknown origin to me?
Do I seek permission of known artists, in order to do tattoos of their illustrations?
Is it a lesser offense to do tattoos from the designs or illustrations of non- tattooers than it is from the designs or illustrations of tattoo artists?
I consider myself a shop tattooer, a draftsman- though I often draw “custom” tattoo designs for people, this is something that has developed over the past 10 or 20 years. Prior to that I tattooed mainly flash, or derivations of flash, and designs that people brought to me – which I may have had to alter to make more tattooable.
But over the years , which tattooist hasn’t tattooed an image of Disney’s or Merrie Melodie’s? Or of Frazetta or Boris?
What about a tattoo from one of Gil Elvgren’s or Vargas’s or Olivia’s pin up illustrations?
photo 3
photo 5
Perhaps it’s ok if the artist, whose design you want to do as a tattoo is no longer living, like Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Maxfield Parish, Mucha, Freida Kahlo – just a few of the hundreds of artists- whose work I’ve seen as tattoos?
Is it okay if I go to the library or purchase a book and tattoo an image from the book? Copyright laws clearly state otherwise.
With millions of images accessible on line. How do you decide or police ownership of an image that you can use as a tattoo?
But I am speaking ethically, not legally.
Obviously there is no one, clear cut answer. Like with any rule, people will arbitrarily decide when it should be used, when to appy it and under what circumstances they’ll ignore it or bend it. I guess we’ll each make a decision when the time comes and we’ll each have an opinion of one another based on the decisions we make.

Similar Articles

4 thoughts on “Flattery, Thievery, Or Just Plain Business?

  1. I’m curious – did you do the tattoo? Did you try a Google image search? It’s a fascinating topic. My next planned tattoo involves a few different elements of various artists, but I give all these ideas to my incredibly talented tattoo artist and ask her to mesh them together with her own style. Does that go into a gray area as well in your opinion?

  2. my own thoughts on this. if a person comes in with a print out that i cant find the original of i almost always talk the person into letting me redraw it. i’ll at least tell them that i have to make the design more “tattooable” (whether it’s true or not) and i’ll show them my drawing. more often than not they like mine better. inform them that their print out was likely not designed to be a tattoo so it probably wont fit their body well. let them know that they are probably the millionth person to get this exact tattoo and that there will be a million more after her, or she can have a unique design that is just for her. if they refuse to yield then i will probably tell them to go elsewhere (this happens maybe a handful of times a year, if that) i only really ever do a reproduction if it’s vital to the tattoo such as an iconic cartoon character, a sports team logo, or recognizable album cover. ya know like a daffy duck, raiders shield, or the justice for all album art.
    and if you do the tattoo i would say credit the original artist (if you can) or just don’t take a picture of it at all
    in the long run the money you would get for this one tattoo won’t last as long as a black eye to your reputation.

Comments are closed.