Should Tattoo Artists Be Allowed to Copyright Their Designs?

Categories: Body Art
The Hangover II opened this week despite a lawsuit from retired boxer Mike Tyson's tattoo artist on the grounds that the tat's inclusion in the film constitutes copyright infringement. The tribal style ink is featured on the face of Ed Helms who, along with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifinakis, must retrace his steps through a completely bizarre, blacked-out night on the town.

The artist, S. Victor Whitmill, believes he should be compensated, while the filmmakers claim their depiction of the tattoo falls under fair use laws regarding parody. Cultist wants to know: Who's right?

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported on the tattoo artist and his legal action against the budding bromance franchise. The twofold crux of the case is: 1.) Can tattoos hold copyright? And, if so, 2.) When do depictions of said tattoo violate that copyright?  As Times correspondent Noam Cohen explains, the dispute wanders into the highly complicated overlapping regions of intellectual property and biopolitics:

The suit isn't experts say. They contend the case could offer the first rulings on tricky questions about how far the rights of the copyright holder extend in creations that are, after all, on someone else's body. They are questions likely to crop up more often as it becomes more common for actors or athletes to have tattoos and as tattoo designs become more sophisticated.

The Times also reported that Tyson -- who is known primarily for his boxing career but also enjoys racing pigeons -- apparently signed some sort of tattoo copyright prenup agreeing that "all work, sketches and drawings related to [the] tattoo and any photographs of [the tattoo]" belong to the artist.

Warner Brothers has responded by defending its depiction of the tattoo under the protection of "fair use" in the name of parody. This time around, we have to side with the millionaire media moguls. The whole basis of using the tattoo is an inextricable and constant reference to Mike Tyson.

The Hangover II isn't co-opting Whitmill's design and presenting it as an original. Just the opposite: their use is a constant citation of the original owner. The tattoo, an accepted feature of the eccentric athlete, looks hilarious in contrast with the face and countenance of Ed Helms. Tyson is the impetus for the entire joke. It's like someone came up to you and said "Knock Knock" and then responded to "Who's There?" by biting off your ear.

Furthermore, we wonder if the tattoo's tribal aesthetic blurs the lines a little more. Despite adorning the face of Tyrson (and now Helms), the design is of the generic frat tat variety spotted on bods grooving at a the bro-est quadrants of Bonnaroo. Is someone going to try to copyright hearts with "Mom" around them? Maybe Mike Tyson should have gotten a more distinct facial tattoo. Like Gucci Mane's lightening bolt ice cream cone.

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Antonio Robinson
Antonio Robinson

If Mike Tyson's facial tattoo wasn't distinct why did the movie use it at all?  The artist should have been given credit, a walk on cameo or some other nod for his creation of a pop culture image.  Respect...

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