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Talent Borrows, Genius Steals, Shit Copies

By February 25, 2016 No Comments

Hello again dear reader and welcome to another tale from the naughty step. This month I thought I’d weigh in and try to give you my viewpoint on a perennial and volatile problem that plagues all creative fields. But, it recent years, it’s been a topic of quite a bit of debate… and that’s copying.

Firstly, tattooing has a history and culture of copying which was not only accepted but actively encouraged and which also  presented a much needed additional income for artists who would create sheets of designs for resale to other artists and allow them to offer these designs for sale in their studio as tattoos. I am of course talking about tattoo flash. In the pre-internet days flash was a great way for studios to maintain a competitive edge – a studio owner able to purchase flash from top artists from around the world could easily distinguish his studio from the competition by virtue of the fact that they had the best designs available. Clients requesting something not available from ‘the wall’ were asked to simply bring a picture of what they wanted for the tattooist to see if he could come up with a design – this usually lead to trips the local library, record shop or bookstore but then, along came the internet and clients could simply search for an image online, print it out and get it tattooed and it’s here that the problem really starts.

More than ever before the Internet has brought the question of copying to the fore. A quick google of anything you fancy having as your next tattoo or incorporating into your next design brings up millions of images (all of which are protected under copyright and are not – unless explicitly stated – free to use) and this means that it’s now – more than ever – easy for something that exists in one context to be easily remade elsewhere in the world either by accident or deliberately and it’s very easy to just copy a tattoo design straight from the web. All artists suffer at the hands of the plagiarist at some point, but – in my opinion – it’s a problem that can only truly be tackled if both artist and client are educated in what constitutes plagiarism. If unscrupulous artists aren’t asked to copy for financial gain by clients who don’t realise that ‘google images’ isn’t actually a free image resource then maybe the problem – whilst it’ll never go away completely – will be reduced.

What is copying?

Legally, plagiarism (copying) is taking the creative ideas of another and selling and/or publishing them as one’s own. But even this definition is subject to considerable room for interpretation. When it comes to theft, there is a clear and hard line. You know when you’ve been robbed. But what about ideas? Or art? What is labeled as a ‘copy’ depends very much on cultural questions where the boundaries are very fluid and are often determined personally—and in the case of tattooing (so far) never by the law.

In other creative fields there are plenty of high profile cases of plagiarism that have lead to law suits out of court settlements and countersuits for example; The Australian group New Seekers wrote the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” which became part of Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign in the ‘70s. The Gallagher brothers’ 1994 song “Shakermaker” featured the same melody, and they ended up paying New Seekers $500,000. Later in live performances of “Shakermaker,” Oasis included words from the Coca-Cola hit and ended the song with “Now we all drink Pepsi.”

[blockquote]Andy Warhol was accused of plagiarism more than once, with the case with photographer Patricia Caulfield being one of the most prominent. Caulfield took a photo of flowers for a photography magazine, but Warhol created silk-screened reproductions of the photo. He settled out of court and gave Caulfield a royalty for future use of the image, as well as two of the paintings.[/blockquote]

So copying is bad right?

Well no, not always. Copying and imitation are essential characteristics of human life and in my opinion you cannot have creation without it. We never begin with a blank slate; there is always something before us and for most of our human history, the study of art has consisted of learning from one’s masters through copying.

I – just like generations of artists before me – learned to draw by copying and sometimes literally tracing the work of my favourite artists (Brian Bolland – 2000AD – in case you’re wondering) and later – as I started to develop my own style – I did so by deconstructing the work of my favourite graphic designers and recreating versions of their work before moving on to making my art with a better understanding of how things ‘fit together’ gleaned, in part, from understanding the art of my heroes (Ian Anderson – The Designers Republic – in case you’re still wondering).

A great book that breaks down this idea of copying initially in order to develop your own unique style (and one that I recommend to everyone) is called ‘Steal Like An Artist’  by Austin Kleon. It very succinctly debunks the myth that all copying is bad and really helps creatives to understand copying as a means to an end and – not necessarily – the dirty word that we are lead to believe.

[blockquote]”Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso [/blockquote]  

So copying is ok right?

Well no, not always. The reason I felt ok copying Brian and Ian was that – at no point – did I intend to present my copies of their work as originals I had created – In fact, I never intended (and never have) presented those ‘masterpieces’ to anyone, period! I also never intended to use them to get gainful employment or to sell. I was simply learning from them with a solid intent of creating my own work for which I would (hopefully) get paid for at some point. And it’s here we come (finally – sorry) to the point of my argument for and against copying anything. It’s all in your intent. Are you intending to learn from it or profit from it? Counterfeiters copy, and conceal they are doing so. Students copy, as artistic training. Assistants copy, as labour for more famous artists. Just ask yourself which are you doing?

There are, of course, a lot of grey areas here and this only serves to confuse things even more. For example; A portrait artist uses an image to copy to create a portrait tattoo has he or she infringed the copyright of the photographer? Well, in my opinion, legally yes but I think its fair to assume that it’s unlikely that legal action would follow. But, if an artist took that same photo, added a flower and then went on to sell prints of his or her ‘new’ art I think there’s every chance that they could be in very hot water. I’m using this second example because I see plenty of ‘art’ for sale at conventions that is nothing more than plagiarism – plain and simple – I’ve even seen posters for the convention themselves that could easily become the subject of a lawsuit or two should the photographers stolen photo or models stolen and rebranded image ever be pointed out to them.

And the only reason that tattoo artists aren’t being sued left and right for this? Well the answer is a pretty simple one – there’s just not enough to gain from it. A hit song or best selling book generates millions of pounds of revenue in industries that are worth billions so a successful lawsuit could be very profitable. Tattooing just is a big enough industry…yet.


What’s the Law?

All artistic works are protected by UK law under the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act and – In case you don’t know – it’s not necessary to register copyright. Copyright protection is automatic as soon as there’s a record (in any form) that it’s been created. Protection lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years and tattoos could technically be protected under this act providing the artist can prove that it’s original. None of this has ever been tested in a court as yet though and is unlikely to be anytime soon as most tattooists are of the opinion that educating clients on the do’s and don’ts is a far better way to go.


So why does originality matter?

It was a commonplace, in the mid-20th Century, to insist that mechanical reproduction spelled the end of originality, or that the death of the author was upon us and that authorial invention was a fraud. Given that I’ve said that tattooing has a rich history and culture of copying does originality really matter? Only very recently do we think of originality and innovation as being a primary value and only recently have designs been accepted as an individual’s intellectual property. But mechanical reproduction has made ‘original’ works of art even more desirable, not less so, with many works achieving cult-like devotion and in these times of everything being spied just as soon as it become popular we worship even more the unique, the iconic, the original. Whether it matters or not depends on your idea of original.

No it doesn’t

If you (for example) create traditional style tattoos where the iconography and visual language of the style are well established it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to produce anything totally original in that style by sticking to the accepted parameters of ‘trad’ tattooing. But why would you want to? And – just as importantly why would your clients want you to? So if you trace a rose that has been traced a thousand times before buy a hundred different artists to use you could hardly be accused of plagiarism. Your shading, colour choice and position will make it different enough to be considered – at least in my mind – original. And if someone else tattooed exactly the same rose on exactly the same day, but their way, you’d be unlikely to be spitting your dummy about copycats.

Yes it does

But, if you’d spent upwards of 20 hours creating a unique piece for a client only to see it ripped off from your instagram and tattooed 2 days later or spent years developing a visual language all of your own only to have it stolen and watered down by vampires whose sole motivation is getting rich quick by sucking the you dry before moving on to the next victim you’d understandably be more than a little pissed off!

So if you’re an artist ask yourself – which of those am I? What is my intent? Being original within the parameters of my chosen style whilst retaining the history? or simply stealing from anyone that ‘does cool stuff’ so I can get a load of ‘likes’ and be instafamous…

If you’re the latter, Take Bill Hicks advice and please “kill yourself now”.

But if you’re a client what should you do? Well the answer is simple just don’t ask one artist to copy another. Don’t use google as your ‘flash palace’. Those of us that care about great tattoos really hate it and if your ‘artist’ doesn’t care then he or she probably doesn’t care about your tattoo either so you should go find someone who does.

As Sturtevant once said, “Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine – that’s the way to go.”