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Syracuse University Libraries

Tattoos and Copyright: Business Practices: Copyright and Tattoo Studio Management

A fool-proof guide to understanding the implications of copyright in the field of tattooing, both for the patron and the artist.

A Reflection on Tattooing and Copyright Relative to Business Management Practices

A great deal of the amount of issues present when speaking about tattooed works and copyright hover along the lines of ethicality and morality, rather than legality. Although a large purpose of this LibGuide is to inform and educate both artist and patron of the legal connotations attached to getting a tattoo, a portion also should be dedicated towards understanding how copyright in this respective sense impacts the function of a business, particularly a more quaintly sized organization such as a tattoo studio.  The practices of management, leadership, and business through ideology is still relevant to a business providing an artistic service such as tattooing. Understanding the implications of copyright in a business-centric manner can also help understand why this has become an overlooked issue, and whether or not it is something to seriously keep in mind as either an artist, owner, or patron.

Up until relatively recently, the ideas of tattoos in the western world were particularly taboo, representing a negative image of a particular social class, demographic, or societal group. The judgment attached with getting and having tattoos has subsided greatly, much of which was facilitated through the promotion of the first amendment relative to tattoo-getting. People essentially should have the right to express what they want to say freely, whether it be through any type of artistic, verbal, or creative manifestation. The first amendment in our bill of rights and idea of “free-speech” protects individuals in the United States from serious repercussions for their own personal expressions. But, like the law, everything is also subjective. Just as people interpret and deem “hate speech” as not relevant or covered by the first amendment, should personal expression of a copied image also be frowned upon? All legal aspects aside, this becomes an issue of ethics and morale, and gets just as complicated as copyright law itself.

Having many friends who have tattoos and practice tattooing, and being an owner for many tattoos myself, I asked many of my friends what they thought about the issue. I am going to focus on three of my friends’ particular responses. Overwhelmingly, my friends thought that people should be able to get whatever they want tattooed on them, without any repercussion of any sort – copied or not. They believe that a tattoo artist as well serves as just someone who completes the service and shouldn’t be held responsible for a customer bringing in a copied image. There is an observation of an odd “gray area” where tattoos should remain an exception to every single type of copyright law or “copying” ethical code, despite tattoos being regarded as an art form in itself. My friends believed that the amount of copyright infringed tattoos is overwhelming, and unless these tattoos had some sort of importance in advertising or trademark infringement, would never be brought to legal action.

This brings up a larger question of the business practices of the tattoo artist themselves and how their own personal beliefs regarding this topic and issue should or shouldn’t be protected or considered in these cases. Any artist would be infuriated if a design they made was copied, or any author would be infuriated if their work were plagiarized. However, the rate in which people are actually sued isn’t large enough to impact a change in business habit or practice for tattoo studios. In cases of famous individuals like LeBron James and Mike Tyson sporting copyrighted designs, this is more to do with the attached sensitive monetary net worth of the individual rather than having a design infringed upon or stolen. Most high-end respected tattoo studios make their own flash sheets and designs from their own creative ideas and work closely with customers to ensure that they are creating a unique image from inspiration pictures. The reputation of the tattoo studio itself is being considered here, where every piece done has to reflect a sense of unique-ness and distinct nature in order to create a competitive advantage to other studios. The tattoo market is one that is very cutthroat, particularly with the widespread distribution of image through social media. Many tattoo artists depend on Instagram for almost all of their clientele. The image a studio must portray has to be solitary and exclusive – there’s no room for copied tattoo designs in their portfolios.

Tattoo artists are micro-managers of their own schedules and clients, which makes them unique as an employee of a studio. More often than not, tattoo studios are owned by artists themselves, sometimes more than one. In this sense, the corporate responsibility of a studio is of no comparable magnitude to a multi-billion-dollar company like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. However, it is a notoriously expensive and tedious service, which creates tension between client and artist. Artists themselves must become consultants and researchers in order to be considered responsible and ethical artists. This is a very unorthodox idea to be attached to a tattoo artist but has become more relevant and plausible with the surfacing of multiple blog posts pertaining to stolen work, and serious lawsuits pertaining to copyright infringement.

Technically, sports logo and musical lyric tattoos infringe upon copyright. But the chances of you being sued for having the tattoo or being the one to complete the tattoo are rare. Unless you are tattooing someone, who has great media exposure through any sort of artistic or athletic endeavor, there isn’t too much risk involved. The frustrating part is that most cases are settled out of court. We can’t entirely come to any some sort of legal conclusion with seeing the provisions and outcomes of the case. The NFL or your favorite musician probably will not go out of their way to hunt individuals down with tattoos of their logos or lyrics infringing upon their copyright. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be diligent in making sure your piece is unique and thought of carefully – it will be with you forever.


This LibGuide was created for the purpose of exploring the complexities of copyright law relative to tattooing as an art form. It contains information, research, and links to resources about copyright. The information provided here should NOT be construed as legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.