Crystal City was abuzz — bzzzzzz — bzzzzzz — with hundreds of hand-held tattoo machines grinding away at fresh flesh. There was no panic or indecision inside the ballroom at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington; these attendees were not amateurs, but expert collectors searching for new acquisitions. And although over 160 tattoo artists convened to drill ink into torsos and limbs, the 2013 DC Tattoo Expo felt more like a small-town summer arts festival than a national convention.
“Everyone knows everyone, we recognize each other’s work,” said California-based Jack Rudy, 59, an icon of the tattoo industry who started tattooing at Goodtime Charlie’s Tattooland in East Los Angeles in 1975.
“But, oh, the things that I’ve seen,” Rudy trails off. “It’s all very different now. There are owners of tattoo shops who don’t even have tattoos. It’s like a vegan owning a steakhouse.”
Rudy remembers back when there were only four tattoo parlors in East L.A.; when tattoos were the mark of sailors or Marines, of which he was one. Rudy wasn’t called an artist in 1975, but that’s what people call him now, along with a “godfather of black and grey style,” a sort of chiaroscuro technique in tattoo art.
Indeed, there are movements in the craft, celebrated on the pages of coffee table books and blogs, that helped tattoo art creep into the art world via the usual drivers of recognition — talent, popularity, even lawsuits.
“In the mainstream world, the value of tattoo art, as folk art and fine art is recognized,” said Margot Mifflin, author of “Bodies of Subversion,” whose third edition was published in January. “I would say tattooing is considered an art form everywhere except in the art world . . . there’s a class bias at play in that arena.”
Still, tattoo artists are basking in the rise of their craft. Since the 1970s, tattooing has grown into a $2 billion industry in the United States. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that a third of Americans age 18 to 25 have a tattoo, and about 40 percent of Americans ages 26 to 40 have at least one. Though there are no official numbers, some estimates say there are 15,000 to 20,000 tattoo shops in the country. Television shows such as “Miami Ink” and “America’s Worst Tattoos” have made the craft ever more popular, even if remorse sometimes leads to removal. And according to Mifflin, in 2012, tattooed women outnumbered men for the first time. Americans of different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes have taken to tattoos of all styles, price points and sizes, with custom work selling for thousands of dollars. Arguably, tattoos are no longer a symbol of anything in themselves, just as oil paintings or sculptures represent the subjects and scenes they depict.
Few would argue that a subculture doesn’t exist in the tattoo world, but the vast majority of the tattooed masses — the 40 percent under 40 — resemble amateur art lovers or collectors who hang watercolors in their living rooms.
“It is less meaningful as a gesture that defines you as countercultural or subversive in a way,” Mifflin said. “They don’t define individuals as a type anymore.”
Still, the tattoo industry is set apart from other creative industries, perhaps because of its mass appeal and living canvas.
“Is it fine art or fashion? Design or folk art?” Mifflin asked. “There are understandable problems with showing it. You can’t stick a live body in a museum for two months.”
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.
“Clearly, there can be copyright of the tattoo,” Laura R. Handman, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP specializing in intellectual property, said. [Disclosure: Handman’s firm has sometimes represented The Washington Post Co.] “But some of the standard longtime forms would already be in the public domain. [Mike Tyson’s tattoo was] derived from tribal art and arguably had copyright status in the sense of originality.”
Other more complicated legal questions include whether tattoos are “fixed” works.
“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.”
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.”