Going back to approximately 2000BC tattoos were initially the after-effect of a certain therapeutic treatment. According to an article titled “Tattoos: ancient and mysterious history” by Cate Lineberry published on Smithsonian.com, the so-called “Iceman”, a carbon-dated 5200-year-old frozen mummy, had tattoo-like markings around the lower spine and ankle joint areas. Profe. Don Brothwell from the University of York, who examined the mummy, says that the random distribution of the tattoos and their locations are indicative of treatment for joint pain.

It is not traditional oil on a canvas, but tattooing is an art and requires a certain skill. Jonathat Jones’s article titled “Tattoos: eye-catching, but are they art?” published on TheGuardian.com, says that individuals “collect” tattoos on their bodies just as one would collect paintings. Tattoo artist Amy Savage, says, “People who are into tattoos know that it’s an art.”

The tattoo industry has grown so large that many artists want their work to be recognised as their own and retain ownership of their work. If one purchases a painting, it becomes the property of the purchaser, but the artists still holds the copyright. Something as personal as a tattoo raises questions about ownership. Does the artist remain the owner of the design after it has been transferred to skin or does the person who paid for it become the new owner?

An article from LATimes.com called “Whose tattoo is it anyway?” by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman says that it is the wearer of the tattoo that should remain the owner as he or she paid for it. Tattoo artists, however, believe that they are entitled to have a copyright over their work just as a photographer has over his images.

Victor Whitmill, who is responsible for the tattoo around Mike Tyson’s left eye, sued Warner Brothers because the pattern was replicated in The Hangover: Part II on actor Edward Helms’s face. According to Raustiala and Sprigman’s article “Can you copyright a tattoo?” on Freakonomics.com, Whitmill wanted to stop the movie from being released because the tattoo was recycled without his permission.

Had Whitmill been given the right to claim copyright over his work, Tyson and any other person with a tattoo made by him would be deprived from doing the simplest things, such as walking around in public. The case was therefore ruled in favour of Warner Bros.

Claims of compensation for such “infringements” are not prevalent in South Africa, but it is certain that artists overseas feel violated. The National Football League (NFL) in the USA has advised all players to get waivers from their tattoo artists for the public display of their works.

Glenda Williams writes in her article “Insight: it’s your tattoo, but do you own the copyright?” published on FinWeek.com, that unless the artist copied a design that a customer made and asked to be replicated, the artist or the studio should remain the owner. Williams says that “unless it can be proven that you were the originator and author of the artistic work or unless you have entered into a contract regarding copyright ownership with the tattooist or tattoo studio, you may not be able to reproduce it without their permission.”

John Foster, an associate at Spoor & Fisher in Cape Town believes that the copyright that vests in a tattoo does not change just because it is on a human body. Foster equates a tattoo with a logo and an architect’s design in which the creators hold the copyright.

However, that is not where the obsession ends. Some individuals have gone the distance and become human billboards, offering their body as advertising space for anyone who makes the highest bid.

“The body as billboard: your ad here” article on NYTimes.com by Andrew Newman, says that a public relations firm called Mischief ran a marketing campaign for an online business that sells beauty products (FeelUnique.com) in England. The firm hired ten individuals to temporarily tattoo the website’s name on their eyelids and wink at strangers. They were paid £100 for 1 000 winks (ten pence per wink).

In 2005 Andrew Fischer and Kari Smith offered their foreheads as advertising space through eBay. Green Pharmaceuticals Snore Stop made the highest bid at $37 375 to Fischer, who temporarily tattooed the website name on his forehead. A second time Fischer only made $5 000 from Golden Palace, a casino. However, Smith received $10 000 from the casino to get a permanent tattoo on his forehead that would display their website name in a large and bold font, in capitals.

While some may think that tattoos are the new “in thing” and break boundaries that no one thought existed, others are doing their best to keep their children away from it. According to “Obama threatens ‘family tattoo’ if daughters get their own” on Reuters.com, US President Barack Obama threatened his daughters that should they ever get a tattoo, the first lady and himself would get the same tattoo in the same place and show it to the world. One can either accept or reject the new notions in art and the extremes that people are willing to go to. The conventional manners, permanently tattooed into daily life, will not be easy to let go. Open-mindedness, however, might be the answer.


Photo: Hendro van der Merwe

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