The urge to mark, to record, to make art, is a very powerful one in us human beings. We doodle fanciful images on napkins, we write notes to ourselves on bathroom mirrors, we tell the owners of dirty cars to “clean me” — and we draw on flesh. The mix of human tissue and art can lead to legal problems of a somewhat unusual nature. There’s the whole matter of permission, the base position being “no art on — or in — me, without my say-so”. Which some surgeons, it seems, have trouble respecting, like the gynaecologist who burned “ingrid” into his patient’s uterus during surgery, or the surgeon who (allegedly) put his initials onto a transplanted liver.
Then there’s the issue of competence. You give permission to a tattooist to put art on your skin and you want it done skillfully and to your specifications. Failure or miscommunication could easily lead to a negligence claim, which is why tattoo parlours will ask you to sign a waiver to cover off as much risk as possible in this way.
Now copyright has reared its head. Some tattoo artists want to assert their rights to their designs to prevent copying. The most popular instance is likely the fuss around Mike Tyson’s face tattoo. The artist sued Warner Brothers for its wrongful use in the movie The Hangover: Part III and obtained an out of court settlement of the matter. But other instances have followed, and it’s become a practice, apparently, for celebs or VIPs (who would be sensible “targets” of infringement actions) to try to take themselves out of the equation by requiring a document from the tattoo artist asserting that the design is original with the artist. (I think I’d want a promise to save me harmless from a lawsuit as well.)
A small irony around the matter of Mr. Tyson’s tattoo has to do with the fact that it mimics a Maori moko — and one in the most sacred location at that. For Maoris a moko is extremely personal, a way of declaring his or her genealogy and is a an expression of “cultural pride and integrity.” But there’s no law about cultural appropriation.