Tattoos and Copyright Issues

This here may be a question for any lawyers we have on the board. I am considering getting a tattoo on my forearm in the fall. I would very much like to use the Superman shield created by Alex Ross for “Kingdom Come” (comic fans will know wherof I speak).

My question is: does getting a tattoo of an original piece of art, or tattooing that piece of art onto someone, constitute a violation of the artist’s copyright?

I would think that that the person being tattooed would be fine, but that the tattoo artist might be in trouble due to his using the art for profit. Can anybody help clear up this little ethical problem for me, as I don’t want to inadverdantly violate Mr. Ross’ intellectual property. Perhaps there is a tattoo artist on the board who has run into this situation before?

I don’t see why because the artist is getting money for doing the work and not for the art. the tatooist didn’t say anything to me when I got mine and I had him copy it directly from an LP cover.

Well, my tattoo is a panel from a Calvin & Hobbes daily. The whole panel, word balloon and everything. Since Watterson never licensed any Calvin & Hobbes material, for any purpose, if any tattoo is bootleg then mine certainly is.

However, I’m pretty sure it’s permissible under the “fair use” standards. It’s only a small sample of his work, it doesn’t infringe on Watterson’s ability to profit from his comic strips, I don’t use it for my own business (contrast with the day-care center that got sued for putting Disney characters on its building) and it doesn’t cast his work in an undesirable light (like those truck-window stickers of an evil Calvin pissing on something do). I imagine you may consider the same factors when you choose your own tattoo.

I’m not a lawyer, of course, but I studied communication law extensively during my two years at Journalism grad school. No authority expressed or implied.

I have a Betty Boop tatto on my left should, copied from an address label. The artist never mentioned copyright issues.

Sorry! “should”=shoulder!

I’m not a lawyer, but having maintained the Tattoo FAQ for several years in rec.arts.bodyart I can give you more than just twopence worth.

In general, you don’t have to worry about copyright violations. For one thing, the tattoo artist is making a likeness of an image (a reasonable facsimile) but you’re not actually wearing a “copy” of the image. So far as I am aware, nobody has ever been sued for copyright or trademark infringement.

I am also not aware of any tattoo artist who has been sued, or received cease-and-desist letters from artists regarding copyright infringement.

Having said that, there is a man who has his entire back tattooed with Disney characters, and more specifically, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He loves Disney, and used to visit Disneyland fairly regularly. Some years ago however (oh, this is probably going on six years or so), he was escorted out by Disney security because the guy kept removing his T-shirt to show off his tattoos to park visitors. The visitors loved it, but park management didn’t think it was uh… a good way for visitors to spend their time in the park. He’s since received notice telling him that he cannot remove his shirt in the park, but I don’t think they’ve banned him from entering.

I don’t know if this is a UL, but a FAQ reader once told me a friend of hers wrote to Theodore Geisel a long time ago (before his works got “faddish” a few years ago) and asked for permission to use One Fish, Two Fish as a tattoo. Not only did the person get permission; she got a personally hand-written note from the late Mr. Geisel himself showing his delight that someone would want to permanently ink her body with his drawings.

I hope it was true. He was a pretty classy guy already, much moreso if true!

I would guess that you can get the tattoo without violating copyright, but the tattoo artist could not advertise that tattoo. Oh yeah, and you could not make money from your tattoo (selling photos of your forearm?)


Thanks for the great overview of the issues involved. I’m obviously not going to be getting tatted for profit, but I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to be philosophically treading on the original artist’s toes.

Another good story…

Apparently when Harley-Davidson was trying to clean up its image and become the preeminent bike in the U.S., the one activity that they didn’t try to stop was of their fans getting Harley tattoo’s on their chests.

The Harley officials said that an owner that gets a Harley tattoo would probably have a STRONG brand loyalty.