Tattoos, Fair Use, and Copyright. Black Voodoo Tattoo

This is the only copy of my Three Legged Bird that asked permission before the tattoo

A beautiful Tattoo of my Three Legged Bird . This is the only person to asked permission before the tattoo. The tattoo is done by an amazing artist Thomas Boulard  from Lyon France.

This post is a tough one to write. I debated writing a blog post on tattoo artists who are using my artwork. On one hand I feel kind of honored to have people wanting to have my images tattooed onto their bodies. On the other hand I wonder if these people know that the artwork was conceived by me and not the tattoo artist. I know that some clients bring my artwork in to the tattoo shops but I have to wonder how many times the tattoo artists’ use my images afterwards.

My Three Legged Birds is the most popular with tattoo artists. When I started working on my preliminary drawings for my Three Legged Birds in 2010, I spent a lot time looking online for artist renditions of the iconic and mythic image. I made a conscious decision to make my interpretation unique and unlike any other version of any other artist’s vision. I made every part specific to my drawing. I intentionally made the head smaller than a real crow. I made the wings broader than any crow as well. My bird also had very specific talons on my bird, I tried to make each expressive and unique, so unique that they would only be found on my drawing. My tail feathers are also configured so that they would not be found on any other bird drawing. So my version is intentionally unique.

In 2013 I started seeing other variations of my drawing appearing online. Some were simply my drawing reversed or my drawing colorized, these appeared on Deviant Art, and I had them removed. I also found outright thievery of my artwork for profit and I have also had them removed and I have shamed them in this blog.

In the last year I have discovered that my three legged raven has been used without permission by tattoo artists. I often get requests by to use my raven images for tattoos from patrons. I was reluctant at first but I relented with the condition that the image would never be used again by the tattoo artist. I wanted some control of how my images would be used. My patrons were thrilled and the tattoo artists were respectful. One patron was very excited and asked me if I had given Chelsea Wolfe permission. I did not know who she was and she told me she was a well know musician. I looked her up and found my raven on her arm. I contacted Ms. Wolfe though her blog and told her that I was the artist who did the original drawing; she happily credited me on her blog. She understood that credit is very important and was very willing to give it.

Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe


I started doing image searches of tattoos: three legged raven, three legged crow, 3 leg crow, #3leggedcrow, etc…… I soon found dozens.

My reaction was mixed. I am honored that people would want my artwork permanently on their bodies, what an incredible compliment!!!! At the same time I was a little perturbed. I know that my artwork is floating the internet un-credited, someone removed my credits. People find them and simply take. It would very easy to find out who the artwork belongs to with a simple image search and if they had asked I would have likely granted permission. I was also irritated by the tattoo artists who made no attempt to find out who made the original artwork. I have spent the past few months contacting tattoo artist that have used my artwork without permission. Most of them have been very cooperative. They apologize to using the image and some apologize for their clients as well. All I ask of them is credit and an assurance that the image not be used without my consent, most have wiling added a credit line for me on their websites.

Joe Hoppert Ink. Joe unfortunately, is clueless about copyrights

Joe Hoppert Ink. Joe, unfortunately, is clueless about copyrights. He would not admit fault or give credit (Russian without permission)

Russian Tattoo

Russian Tattoo

(Russian without permission)

Johnathan Aguirre, a fellow Floridian.

Johnathan Aguirre, a fellow Floridian. credit given Phil Kyle, an American in UK
Phil Kyle, an American in UK. credit given

Then there are the jerks. Like many musicians, I have also found tattoo artist that were equally clueless.

All I wanted was a credit or a link to my Etsy shop. Most of the tattoo artists were very willing to add it. They also added kind comments about the artwork.

One particularly nasty artist is Justan Carlson of Black Voodoo Tattoo Parlor. I contacted him to ask if he could add a credit.

  •  My message: “hi I was Google searching my artwork because it often gets used without permission. I found your tattoo. I am always happy when someone wants one of my ravens on their body. However I think it might be a polite gesture to ask permission.”
  •  His response: “You must have a lot of free time on your hands to harass someone like this. It’s 2015 and the image was altered drastically. Stop harassing me or my lawyer will contact you.

Now, I really don’t think than I was the one being rude here. I sent him a link to a video on ethical copyright usage, I never heard from him or his lawyer

I did contact a copyright lawyer, his response was.
“It does not matter if he altered the image or to what degree it was altered. It is plain to see from the photos that this person copied your image. The altering of color and the additional items are slight not drastic and does not change the fact that he took your original artwork without permission. This is someone who is not complying after being informed, I would have a letter sent, demand whatever you want (e.g. money compensation or a promise to never use the work again without a license) and threatening legal action otherwise. You can ask for a licensing fee for example if you are okay with the use, or just ask for payment and a promise not to use it again etc. “

All I wanted was a credit and it is obvious that I could be asking for a lot more.

Carlson’s “original” drawing with his copy of my Three Legged Crow

Carlson's sketch based on my etching

Carlson’s sketch based on my etching

final versionl

final version l

It is pretty obvious that he copied my image. Even the talons are exactly the same

A lot of people are under the false impression that altering a pirated piece of artwork makes it OK. If that is true then exactly what percentage makes it OK..10%..20% …30% ??
Infringement is not a mathematical formula, no percentage makes it OK.
Internet Myths on copyright
*There is no % of change rule– if it looks like it or some obvious elements came from the same image its copyright infringement.
*Everything on the Internet is ‘public domain’ and free to use…………….. NOPE
*If it does not have a copyright symbol or notice it is public domain…….. NOPE
* If I change someone else’s work I can claim it as my own ………………..NOPE
As long as the copied artwork resembles the original then it constitutes a copyright violation. Some people also think anything on the internet is called “fair use” – Fair Use is a legal term which allows some use of copyright material such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

dickhead1 copy

Mr. Carlson claims his design is drastically altered. However when you put his tattoo next to my etching there is no question that this is a copy of my design. I believe his threat of a lawyer is hollow. I doubt that there is much legal question of who has violated US copyright law. Clearly he used my etching for all parts his tattoo, the wings, head, body, tail feathers, and talons are identical. The only difference is that the axis is tilted slightly backwards and the addition of some color and the lantern. His claim that his “image was altered drastically” is totally untrue. According to copyright law he has violate my copyright because:

• Use of whole or part of my image without permission

He never attempted to find the copyright holder

• Use beyond the scope of a license (which He did not have)

• Adapting my image without permission (art rendering)
An infringement is any violation of the exclusive rights of a creator, unless there is a defense such as “fair use”. You can make an infringing copy by direct copying or through copying substantial elements of a Copyrighted work, in any medium.
Many violators claim that they did not know that an image is copyrighted. Ignorance is not an excuse today. It is easy to find a copyright owner. So who is responsible for a violation?
• The company or individual who directly infringed
• Employees who took part in the infringement
• Anyone who published the infringement either knowingly of not

So what is Fair Use?
“Fair Use” is an exception in a copyright that allows for written or images to be used in Academic Research, Teaching, News Reporting, Criticism, Commentary, Personal use, or Parody. It is suggested that a credit or link to the copyright owner be added as good manners. This excludes using the copyrighted item for profit or to promote financial gain.

One famous case of improper use of “ Fair Use” is artist Jeff Koons vs. photographer Art Rogers. Mr. Rogers’ black and white photograph, entitled “Puppies,” had been sold on inexpensive consumer merchandise such as greeting cards and postcards. It also had a copyright notice.

Koons found Rogers’ “Puppies” on a postcard. He was inspired to make a sculpture based on the image for a show called “The Banality Show.” Koons did not make any of the sculptures for this show himself. He hired an Italian artists create them to his specifications. Koons removed Rogers’ copyright notice from the card, and then gave it to his Italian assistants, with instructions to duplicate it as closely as possible in sculptural form. Koons’ instructed the artisans to use certain colors, including making the puppies blue, and to add flowers to the couple’s hair.

The Rogers case is usually cited for the failure of Jeff Koons’ “fair use” defense. The court establishes that Koons’ use of the Rogers photograph did not qualify as fair use.

Using the myth of percentage of change or Fair Use is a slippery slope. There is nothing to stop you being inspired by the work of others, just be careful to respect the copyright.

Use Google image search to find the owner, ask permission. I once contacted a photographer to ask if I could use part of his image in one of my prints. He wanted $250 and a signed contract of a percentage of revenue. Obviously I opted not to use his artwork and decide that I could create a better image. I was inspired by his image and my image was better than his. It was uniquely my own.

Inked Magazine, the magazine for and about tattoo, and recently published an articles about tattoos and copyright. It clearly warns tattoo artists to be take care when honoring copyrights.

“Artists own the copyright of their art. Put it in books, posters, etc without their permission and they will sue you. But on skin? The polite way is always the best. Ask the artist his permission before going to your tattoo shop, or ask your tattooist to do it (from artist to artist it can be better, and perhaps they know or respect each other’s). Most of the time, artists are very happy to see their art ending on someone else’s body. Not asking is rude. And perhaps dangerous. It never happened before, but if an artist would sue a tattooist and a client, what would happen? Would the client have to undergo laser removal??? Or pay for the use of the design? Some artists are selling their designs to tattoo artists and clients. So, your mother was right: a polite request and a thank you is the least you could do… and perhaps the best.”
Tattoo Copyright: What You Need To Know
By JenTheRipper on March 30, 2015

So sorry, Justan Carlson. You are wrong, unlike you, most of the tattoo community is aware and respectful. Shame on you for violating my copyright.


7 thoughts on “Tattoos, Fair Use, and Copyright. Black Voodoo Tattoo

  1. Reblogged this on Anne Lawson and commented:
    The question of copyright and the Internet is a vexed one, with many people assuming that if it is on the net then it’s free to use. As a visual artist I am aware of the issues, if not always as careful of my images as I should be. This blog is a reminder of copyright issues.

    • I am increasingly horrified to discover that many people believe that it is all free. It is a temptation and it is so easy to right click and “own” it. I am a teacher and I constantly stress this in my classes, yet I hear of other teachers who encourage students to use the internet without regard for copyright. It is a question of educating people.

      • Yes I taught too, and remember how freely children would paste things from the Internet to their own work with no idea about attribution, or even that such a thing was necessary.

  2. This is an interesting point but it’s unrealistic (and unwanted) that tattooists can look for copyright and authorisation any time they use material found on internet, cause it would bring us to something none of us want… What for example if someone wants a Disney’s character tattoo? A famous portrait of a star under copyright? Considering that most of us don’t charge anything for the time we spent drawing, and that the price is based on the act of tattooing only, would it be realistic for us to ask and pay for permission of using an image, or tell the client to pay for it (so he’ll go to another tattooist…), and what about the numerous case when the client changes its mind at the last minute and give you a new image to be based on? Should we lose our day waiting for authorization? The problem is quite complex, as for me I try to credit the artist whose image I can have used in my work (sometimes changed, sometimes not), and once I remember having some words through a common friend with an artist who was upset that tattooists kept on using her work without asking, nevertheless I credited her on the picture of the tattoo, didn’t know her before that day and was on a shop where I wasn’t anyway asked about the tattoo design before inking it. Anyway as I don’t chage for my art it seems quite fair that I won’t pay for anybody’s else art when the customer wants one particular design and not my interpretation of the same subject… Even if yes, the act of tattooing would have never existed for that particular customer without the prior piece of art, and that it doesn’t exclude a certain policy between the artist, tattooist and customer around a same piece of art.
    As a conclusion I’d say crediting is a minimum, asking would be nice as far as possible between same backgrounds artists, and the guy from black voodoo is totally incorrect (as to remain polite) not wanting to credit you on his tattoo when he obviously ripped your design off…
    I hope my english was not too shitty and I made myself clear. And by the way the design of that raven is really nice!

    • Thank you Claire, I completely understand the struggle you face. It is very difficult to find the copyright owner when a client comes in with an image to tattoo. Perhaps a waiver or notice that images may be subject to copyright. A waiver may protect the tattoo parlor. Personally I am honored that my art is on someones body. I would prefer being asked permission, or at least a credit for the original artwork. I think Black Voodoo Justan Carlson is ignorant and rude, most tattoo artists are wonderful about recognizing the copyright with a credit. Thank you for your comment!!

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