“To have a copyright, [the work] has to be fixed in a permanent medium such as canvas,” Handman said. “The human body changes, so that was an issue in the case.”
There is also the argument that celebrities have the right to display their tattoos, just as owners of art have a right to display or donate their works to a for-profit museum. This question came up again last November, when Chris Escobedo, a tattoo artist in Arizona, sued a now bankrupt video game publisher THQ for re-creating a custom lion tattoo on ultimate fighting champion Carlos Condit, whose likeness appears in the video game. Escobedo’s attorney, Maria Crimi Speth, said the tattoo was “clearly a piece of art” and copyrightable.
“Whether art appears on canvas or someone’s body, it’s art,” Crimi Speth said in an interview. “We’ve learned over the years, that we’re not allowed to steal art, and same thing is true with piece of art on someone’s body.”
The artist’s pay (and pain)
Going forward, Crimi Speth sees easy solutions to copyright battles, particularly for celebrities who choose to get tattoos.
“Celebrities need to become educated about this issue — ask the tattoo artist to assign the rights to you, or get the appropriate permission or licenses,” she said. While she doesn’t envision a time when every client will need to negotiate licensing rights before getting tattooed, it could become common practice that celebrities sign legal agreements regarding licensing before going under the needles.
Tattoo artists also find themselves sympathizing with other industries that have been severely hampered by mobile technology and the Internet’s viral powers.
The Internet has led to widespread sharing of music, photography and media, which often makes it difficult for artists of all types to gain royalties or recognition for their work. Tattoo artists are no exception, since a photo of a sketch of a work often leads to replication.
The practice is so common that many tattoo shops ban iPhones from their properties. Step inside Bethesda Tattoo Co. in Bethesda or Fatty’s Custom Tattooz in Washington and you’ll see signs banning those pesky devices that museums, churches and concert halls only wish they could ban. iPhones, digital cameras and soon-to-comeGoogle Glasses pose a large threat to tattoo artists who make money from selling their sketches (sometimes called flash) and custom artists who charge thousands of dollars for one-of-a-kind pieces.
“Custom artwork is really important in tattoo art,” Kakoulas said. “There’s a lot of research, drafting and time put into the design. Some people will pay thousands to let a custom artist do what they want with their body” with the understanding that it’s unique.
Still, tattoo artists are not suing one another over infringement. As in all artistic movements, the practice of re-creating or building on someone’s artistic style is so widespread.
“Some of the biggest [copyright] violators are the tattoo artists themselves,” Kakoulas said. “Some tattooists take fine art and make them into tattoos. Much of that work is not in the public domain. I often wonder how some painters would feel about tattooists re-creating their works.”