Who owns the copyright to your tattoo?

“It’s my tattoo, so I own it!”

Well, not necessarily…

The questions around tattoos and copyright is a grey area, and one which doesn’t seem to have an answer.

A tattoo doesn’t just involve you – it also involves the artist who drew it, possibly the person who designed it, and maybe even anyone in the tattoo itself. This is why things can get so complicated.

Mike Tyson’s hangover

The questions around tattoos and copyright came to the front back in 2011, when the Hangover Part 2 came out.

In the movie, Ed Helms’ character wakes up with a replica of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo. Everyone thought it was funny except the artist, who promptly sued Warner Bros. for copyright infringement.

The artist was called Victor Whitmill, and his lawyers claimed that human skin is “as tangible a medium as canvas or print material that photographers use.”

His argument is, even though it was on Mike Tyson’s face, it wasn’t Mike Tyson’s, so the company used his design without his permission.

In the end we didn’t get a legal result, because Warner Bros settled out of court, but it looked like the decision might have gone the way of the artist, which is why they settled in the end.

Cultural appropriation

Many people here in New Zealand called bullshit on the artist’s claims, pointing out the fact that he drew a Ta Moko design without any cultural associations to the country.

They said he was a hypocrite for claiming his design was “stolen”, when in fact he stole it in the first place from Maori culture.

Whitmill never contacted anyone to ask about the culture, the significance or the meaning behind Ta Moko, and by his own admission, drew it freehand when Tyson came in for a tattoo (he originally wanted a series of diamonds and hearts, arranged almost like playing cards on his face).

So, to answer the question, legally speaking, no one knows who owns a tattoo. It’s all dependent on the person, design, and circumstances, and until the law specifically spells it out, the whole area is a grey one.