Enter the lawyers
The tattoo — made by injecting pigment into the dermis layer of skin via needles and various techniques — has had a long evolution. It has gone from being a widespread tribal practice to one that became popular among British sailors in the 18th century, to a signifier of subversion, to a branding mechanism, to yes, what some call a fine art form.
In the last decade, movements in the craft have materialized that mirror those in the art world, with some tattooists specializing in fine-art reproduction, cubist or graphic designs. The craft has moved away from the folk art depictions of roses and anchors that defined it in the midcentury. In another art-world parallel, tattoo artists are also facing challenges that artists in more traditional media encounter: questions of ownership or licensing rights and problems with reproductions.
“Companies and television studios will rip tattoo artists off because they don’t think what we do is worth anything,” said Greg Piper, 42, the organizer of the January’s DC Tattoo Expo and owner of Exposed Temptations Tattoo in Manassas. “If you let someone photograph your work, it will end up on the Internet.”
And, probably, on someone else’s thigh.
While it is hard to steal a Basquiat off the wall or replicate the shades of a Rothko, it’s not hard to reproduce a tattoo from a photo.
Surprisingly, the legal world may become the sector that settles the “Are tattoos art?” query that plagues tattooists and their customers. Due to a couple of high-profile cases over proper licensing of tattoo art, some theorists and practitioners are lobbying for stricter rules regarding the re-creation of tattoo designs.
Brooklyn-based lawyer Marisa Kakoulas, author of the tattoo blog needlesandsins.com, began writing about tattoos and copyrights in 2003. She has represented clients who have sued apparel companies for appropriating tattoo designs without consent.
“It was almost a law school hypothetical, everyone laughed when I would bring this up,” Kakoulas said. “But in the past five years, people are taking the issue of proper licensing seriously.”
One lawsuit caught many eyes in 2011: After boxer Mike Tyson’s tattoo appeared on an actor’s face in ‘The Hangover: Part II,” tattooist S. Victor Whitmill sued Warner Bros. in a California court. Although the case eventually settled, a judge said the artist had a “strong chance of prevailing....” during a preliminary hearing on a proposed injunction.
The case became fodder for legal theorists with David Nimmer, one of the country’s top copyright scholars, serving as an expert witness for Warner Bros. And the subject raised important legal questions that intellectual property attorneys will have to wrestle with in the future.