In any creative field, artists take great pains to guard themselves against plagiarism. In a field where your work is your livelihood, somebody co-opting your creations for their own unauthorized use or worse, unauthorized profit, strikes a huge blow not only psychologically, but also to your business’s sustainability. Unfortunately, tattooing is not immune from this type of threat. Tattoo plagiarism is a little-known problem that can have far-reaching consequences on many practitioners. Unfortunately, when your art is on someone’s body, it’s not as cut and dry as you may think.

Copycat tattoos One of the biggest challenges many tattoo artists face is the phenomenon of copycat tattoos. What’s worse is that the ubiquity of the Internet has only contributed to the spread of this unsavory practice. While not necessarily malicious, it’s easier now than ever before for a prospective tattoo recipient to hop online and, with a hasty Google image search, find a picture of another artist’s work that they then bring to their own tattoo appointment.

Unfortunately the issue can be a tricky one, as there is currently no standardized rule determining who “owns” a tattoo or tattoo design once it gets inked. That said, while the legal board may not be overturned by tattoo plagiarism, the practice is viewed unilaterally throughout the industry as a mark of unprofessionalism. The solution, according to several tattoo bloggers, is simply education and research, both on the part of the client and the artist, to ensure that the artwork that is being used as either a reference or for the tattoo itself isn’t owned by somebody else.

Media reproductions A new challenge has surfaced only recently in the field of fighting against tattoo plagiarism. The rise of computer graphics technology means that more tattoos are actually making their way from people’s skin to people’s television screens. This is especially a problem in video games that depict professional athletes – real people who have real tattoos that get digitally transcribed into games.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the tattoo community itself is divided on the issue. Some artists take the stance that once their subjects stand up out of the chair and pay for their tattoo, what happens to it next is out of the artist’s hands. But more commonly, the thought is that reproducing custom tattoo art without the express permission of the artist is akin to plagiarism, especially in a piece of media that’s going to be sold for someone else’s profit.

Shaky legal ground While no official ruling has yet been passed, many have speculated that tattoos at least ostensibly fall under the same guiding principles as any other work of art – they are original, and are embodied in what the WSJ called a “tangible medium of expression.”

“We’re hired to make a piece of art and give it to someone. To say we own it at that point is kind of absurd,” tattoo artist Megan Wilson told the WSJ.

Copycat tattoos may not be plagiarism, or illegal, but they certainly fly in the face of the spirit of originality fostered by the medium and practice of tattooing. It’s understandable that someone who found out after the fact that their beloved body art was ripped off from somebody else would be feeling more than a few pangs of tattoo regret.

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