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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
James Shackell

Pinched ink: is it wrong to steal a tattoo?

Left: James Shackell’s mountain tattoo. Right: a similar tattoo found by searching ‘geometric tattoo’ on a stock image website
Left: James Shackell’s mountain tattoo. Right: a similar tattoo found by searching ‘geometric tattoo’ on a stock image website. Composite: James Shackell/Getty

In 2014 my partner and I decided, after carefully weighing the pros and cons, to be spontaneous and get tattoos.

We were in London at the time, on the back-end stretch of the obligatory under-30s working visa. The tattoos would symbolise adventure, independence and wild, carefree abandon – or something. They were going to be a permanent reminder that we’d flown to London with no jobs – but plenty of optimism – and muddled our way through.

My partner walked into a tattoo shop near Camden and picked out a small, minimalist sun from a laminated book. I jumped on Google instead and searched for something embarrassing and generic like “cool tattoos men”.

The third image that came up was a mountain design on some guy’s forearm. Three jagged peaks – the first a solid black pyramid, the second pale blue, and the third in greyscale, fading into the skin to indicate Himalayan perspective.

Later, I showed the picture to an intimidatingly cool tattoo artist in Shoreditch, who looked at it and said, “Yep, we can do that.” Two hours later I walked out with someone else’s tattoo on my arm. A carbon copycat.

It took a depressingly short amount of time to bump into someone with my exact tattoo. Perhaps as little as 10 months. Within a few years I’d met another, a burger shop owner who didn’t seem at all pleased when I rolled up my sleeve, raised an eyebrow and said, “Google Images?”

His face seemed to indicate that I’d pricked some inner balloon of creative, individualist pride. In hindsight I should have waited until after he’d made my burger.

Extrapolating from my very small pool of human contacts, I calculate there must be hundreds, potentially thousands of people out there with this tattoo right now, like some sort of shadowy Freemason cult.

Our orbits collide from time to time and we roll up our sleeves and nod solemnly at each other. Strangers probably think we’re the guardians of ancient, occult wisdom, but all we have in common – apart from a peculiar arrangement of ink in our dermis – is an acute lack of originality.

“Look, it happens,” says Melbourne tattoo artist Avalon Todaro. “The second you put a tattoo on Insta, it’s all over the web, and it’s almost expected that it’ll be copied somewhere. It happens every single day. But any reputable artist doesn’t copy another artist’s work.”

Similar tattoo designs of a diamond.
Similar tattoo designs of a diamond. ‘If a tattoo has been copied line for line, that’s really disheartening,’ says tattoo artist Avalon Todaro. Composite: Getty Images

Avalon describes the process like this: tattoo artists or customers post their new ink online, often on Instagram where you can easily trace ownership of the design. But eventually the tattoo bleeds on to sites like Pinterest, where it gets relentlessly shared and reshared, then indexed by Google Images, where it lives forever with no real digital provenance.

The original artist is forgotten. People see the design, think it’s cool, and take it to their local tattoo parlour. And so the tattoo spreads, like a virus, without the creator’s knowledge.

“I do a lot of vegan tatts,” Avalon says. “They’re very specific to me, and I see them done left, right and centre. If you jump on Pinterest and search ‘vegan tattoo’, you’ll see versions of my designs everywhere.”

Australian law broadly covers the concept of “tattoo theft”. “Original tattoos can be copyright artworks like all other original artworks. The fact that they’re on the human body is not problematic for copyright law,” says Dr Marie Hadley, lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle.

Whoever reduced the artwork to “material form” (ie injected the actual tattoo) is the default copyright owner, and their design will be copyright as long as it doesn’t borrow substantially from anyone else.

Very few street-level artists seem to take advantage of this de facto legal protection, although there have been several high-profile tattoo skirmishes involving, among others, Kat von D, LeBron James and the makers of The Hangover. Lawsuits are mostly confined to Hollywood, where everyone has deep pockets, a theft can be easily spotted and individual self-image is worth serious cash.

“Some tattoo wearers in the US have sought to protect their tattoos from being copied by formally registering them with the US Copyright Office,” says Hadley. “While there have not been any legal cases to confirm that a tattoo can be copyright work in Australia, it’s uncontroversial that line drawings in ink would fall within the definition.”

Hadley says there are a few reasons we don’t see any tattoo-based litigation in Australia. First, it’s hard to detect infringement when the infringement is literally someone else’s skin (unless they get famous, that is). Second, it rarely makes financial sense to sue – artists have to prove they suffered “significant loss”. Finally, there’s a collection of norms in the tattoo community – what Hadley calls “informal sanctions” – that broadly cover the issue already.

“Artists might gain a reputation as a ‘scratcher’ or ‘hack’ that infers they’re poor artists. Or they might get called out online by the owner of the source image. Tattoo communities are typically small, close-knit communities, so these sanctions can be quite damaging to the artist’s reputation.”

Todaro says there’s a fine line, so to speak, between theft and inspiration. “If a tattoo has been copied line for line, that’s really disheartening, but there’s nothing wrong with being inspired. People can show the design to their local tattooist, and either track down the original artist or redraw the concept to make it unique.”

She adds: “Ninety percent of the time, people are grateful that you’re offering them something new, something special.”

Personally, I don’t regret my tattoo, but I do regret the blatant IP theft that brought it about. If I had my time again, I’d do things differently.

But all tattoos represent the person you were at the time they were inked – they’re like geological strata of your life, the different layers that separate You Then from You Now. And unfortunately one of those layers was being 25 and a bit of a nob.

I’m a tattoo thief, and I’m not proud of it.

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