Tattoos: Your Property, or Your Tattoo Artist’s?

In recent years, there have been several lawsuits concerning famous athletes’ tattoos. Believe it or not, tattoo artists are suing companies and athletes who fail to compensate the artist for using their artwork on various platforms. One example involves a video game character of Carlos Condit, a famous martial arts fighter. Condit’s tattoo artist, Christopher Escobedo, has sued the video game’s maker for copyright infringement, because the video game-version of Condit features an almost identical lion tattoo that he has on his body in real life. Escobedo feels he has the right to compensation, as the lion tattoo is his own unique artistic creation.

Other cases have involved tattoos in movies like The Hangover 2 as well as in Nike advertisements. In all of these cases so far, a settlement has been reached before being litigated by courts. Therefore, laws concerning tattoos and copyright infringements remain hazy. Instead, lawyers and agents are recommending that their athletes get tattoo artists to sign a waiver after they get anything inked onto their skin. The solution for this controversy is simply for athletes to protect themselves ahead of time.

I struggle with the tattoo argument, mostly for the fact that it is imprinted onto someone’s skin. It’s not the same as consciously adding a Coca-Cola poster to a set to make a character more believable, as Lessig references during his conversations with Guggenheim. Rather, a company is interested in hiring a PERSON for an advertisement, and that person happens to have a tattoo. It seems ridiculous, then, that an athlete should have to cover up a tattoo on television or in an advertisement solely to protect themselves from being sued by their tattoo artists. Once you get the tattoo inked onto your body, it should be yours. Right?! Yours, the same way a beauty mark or freckle is yours.

However, when considering the video game argument again, things get tricky, because artists are literally copying the tattoo, and making a conscious decision to replicate it for monetary gain (when really they could just omit the tattoo for the video game character). Lessig quotes Guggenheim: “’if any piece of artwork is recognizable by anybody . . . then you have to clear the rights of that and pay” to use the work. “[A]lmost every piece of artwork, any piece of furniture, or sculpture, has to be cleared before you can use it.’” Tattoos are artwork, so if a video game artist is copying the tattoo for his own creation, then I think tattoo artists have the right to claim ownership for their art—because the tattoo is being physically and consciously USED by another artists in this scenario.

The obvious Areopagitica quote to reference is that ““no book be Printed, unlesse the Printers and the Authors name, or at least the Printers be register’d.” Milton might believe that a tattoo does indeed need to give credit to the tattoo artist anytime it is featured somewhere creatively. He might even say that tattoos should have the tattoo artists’ signature inked into the owner’s skin. However, I see tattoos as a different kind of product than a book. Tattoo artists willingly give people tattoos knowing that other people will see it and appreciate it without knowing who did it (otherwise, they WOULD ink their signature under every tattoo). So it’s not fair for them to come back later and try to take ownership when one of their clients happens to show up somewhere public.

Kant says, “…a sovereign ruler who favors freedom in the arts and sciences…knows that there is no danger.” To answer the prompt question, no, this copyright infringement is not damaging. I think tattoo artists that sue their clients really are just trying to get as much money as they possibly can. They should favor freedom in art, and let their clients live freely with their tattoos.

I do understand that if a tattoo is being copied or replicated for monetary gain, the tattoo artist should be compensated. However, I think it’s a shame that a famous person might have to cover up their tattoo—which can be such a personal and unique form of expression—just because their tattoo artist might try to make some extra money off of their success. I see tattoos as belonging to the wearer, not the artist—especially in cases where people design their own tattoo. I understand that people will always jump at the chance to make money off anytime their art is being “used” somewhere. For me, the validity of these tattoo copyright infringement cases lies in how the tattoos are (or aren’t) being consciously used by other artists.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas. New York : Random House, 2001. eBook. <https://engl382fall2013.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/lessig_foi.pdf&gt;.

Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightment?.” n. page. Web. 4 Sep. 2013. <https://engl382fall2013.wordpress.com/readings/what-is-enlightenment/&gt;.

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-09-04/hey-pro-athletes-your-tattooed-arms-are-going-to-get-you-sued

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