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I recently received the following question in my email and I thought it brought up some interesting tattoo points.
“I had a question that occurred to me when I saw [a trademark] tattoo on your site. I imagine that symbol is copyrighted as well as a lot of other trademarks and things that get tattooed on client’s bodies. How does the law differ from a tattoo artist copying something and charging for the service and an artist that paints or sculpts something and sells that?”
The main way that I would say the law differs is that a tattooist is not attempting to copy the art and say that it is an original by the artist. Copying paintings usually involves fraud, here it is a reproduction but in a realm of very obvious personal use. What imagery is copied is usually at the discretion of the artist ultimately, with tattooists able to reject anything they deem objectionable, distasteful or otherwise a bad idea. The only *lore* I have ever heard *rumor* of in the tattoo world as far as someone or their corporation objecting to the usage of their images supposedly involved a certain mouse-oriented corporation, but such stories are unsubstantiated to this tattoo collector personally.
Swiss-artist H.R. Giger, know for his Alien designs, knew his images have been copied for all manner of things world-wide. He decided to put out a call for people who wore tattoos that were both direct replicas of specific paintings as well as designs inspired by his style for a tattoo book that he would publish. The tattoo world enthusiastically whipped off it’s shirt with both tattooist and collectors happily contributing in honor of the man whose bio-mechanical nightmares started it all.
Art enthusiasts have been known to have whole painting reproduced on their backs. Versions include both exactly as the Master painted it himself and/or with specific alterations of their own specifications. I met a man at a tattoo convention who wore Mona Lisa on his back, all in blues and browns with one blue eye and one brown eye as a divine androgyne. I’ve seen Van Gough, rendered in his own style, on a woman’s shoulder.
Corporate trademarks actually do enjoy a certain notorious home in the tattoo world. Many employees of sports-gear manufacturer Nike supposedly embrace the company to the point of calling themselves "Ekins" (Nike spelled backwards) and getting the trademark “swoop” design tattoo on themselves. Opponents of the company refer to that same design as a “swoosh-stika” which certainly should give some people pause before getting it added to their bodies for life.
I have never known a tattooist to object to a design based on trademark. There are cases of artist rejecting designs they saw as promoting racism or hate and similar properties. However, there are always tattooists who will take the money and give you what you asked for because that is what their job is to them, to provide the service for which you asked.
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