The Tricky World of Tattoo Copying | Tattoo Etiquette Surrounding Copied Tattoos

When it comes to artistic inspiration, the world of tattooing is a funny place. So much of the craft is rooted in learning from traditions and taking them forward – using ancient designs and ideas and making them more modern.

Furthermore, much of the foundation of tattooing revolves around creating similar images – not to mention the concept of tattoo flash. Panthers, clipper ships, wolves, snakes, daggers, roses - tattoo artists draw these traditional images by the thousands. 

Tattooers inspire each other – and as an aspiring tattooer, it’s important to have artists you look up to.

But being inspired and blatant tattoo copying are two very different things. In this article, we’ll help outline the following:

  • Finding inspiration vs. copying an existing tattoo design
  • The impact of social media when it comes to tattoo theft
  • How to handle clients who want you to tattoo someone else’s work

Taking Inspiration vs. Copying: Exploring the Fine Line 

There’s a delicate balance between taking inspiration from fellow tattooers and crossing the line into plagiarism. 

Artists must be mindful of the ethical considerations involved in borrowing ideas and try to add their own idea to create something new. Finding inspiration from other people in your field is common when it comes to any type of creative pursuit. But it’s crucial to give credit where it’s due while maintaining originality. 

The Importance of Becoming an Original Artist

Also, if you’re thinking about copying tattoos, it might be helpful to take a look at why. Do you admire the style of the original artist? Do you struggle to create a piece of art you think is “good”? Do you simply need to make more time to come up with your own designs? 

Understanding where you’re struggling the most can help you make improvements to your own work - for example, by giving yourself more time to draw before a tattoo or only incorporating a few elements from another artist’s design.
  • The Value of One-of-a-Kind Tattoo Designs

Most artists pride themselves on spending hours creating unique designs for their clients. If someone copies the original tattoo artist and puts the same tattoo on someone else, it can take value away from that person’s work. Even if you’re still developing your own style, it will pay off in the long run because your tattoos will be different from anyone else’s design, raising the value of that piece.

Tattoo Copying vs. Tattoo Flash

Now this is where things get a little murky. 

The tattoo industry has a long-standing tradition of tattoo flash, which refers to pre-designed artwork displayed in tattoo shops. Tattoo flash serves as a valuable resource for both tattooers and clients. It provides inspiration and reference material – showcasing various designs, styles, and motifs that clients can choose from. 

However, while you can use flash as inspiration, it’s still important to come up with your own flash designs.

When is it Okay to Copy Another Artist’s Flash?

The only time it is okay to copy someone else’s tattoo designs is if you get permission from the artist to copy their design or if you buy/trade flash sheets. If you buy a flash sheet, then you “own” that original design and are free to tattoo it.

What About “Generic” Tattoos?

You’ll have plenty of clients come in with a picture of the tattoo they want. In many cases, these walk-in clients will want something a bit more generic - like a simple infinity sign, a single word, etc. This is a judgment call on your part. Of course, you don’t want to copy an existing piece…but some clients will want exactly what they’re showing you in the picture. With these super-simple tattoos, we recommend trying to change it a little bit to give your client a unique design as possible.

Publishing Tattoos on Social Media

Social media has revolutionized our society at large – and that’s no different in the tattoo world. Tattooers today use social media platforms as a major tool for displaying work. The reach of these platforms offers a tremendous amount of potential – getting work in front of many different people in a short amount of time. 

However, posting your tattoos to platforms like Instagram or Pinterest runs the risk of them getting used by copycats. Currently, copyright law has not caught up with the world of social media yet, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do much about a tattoo being copied. 

Pro Tip: 

We still recommend posting your work on social media. It’s much more likely that you’ll get clients from it than have someone steal from you.

Impact of Copying Tattoos on Tattoo Artists’ Careers

The tattoo community is small. Word gets around. If an artist becomes known as a copycat, they will be looked down on by their peers. However, the stigma is so bad that copying tattoos could end someone’s tattoo career nearly overnight.

Tattoo Blacklisting and Its Consequences

Tattooers who blatantly copy will find themselves facing consequences from the community. That leads not only to shame, but the inability to work. Shops will blacklist artists if they’re known as a copycat.

Dealing with Design Copycats: Strategies and Actions

Discovering someone has copied your tattoo design can be frustrating. (Although, hey, let’s not forget that imitation is the highest form of flattery.) 

If another tattoo artist has copied your work, it will be tempting to raise hell. But it’s important to approach the situation with professionalism. We recommend documenting the evidence, just in case you need it later.

Celebrity Tattoos, the Copying Phenomenon, and Addressing Client Requests for Exact Tattoo Copies

People want the tattoos they want. Sometimes, that means fans will want the tattoos of their idols. When a celebrity showcases a visually striking tattoo, it’s not too uncommon for people to seek replicas of those designs.

This can be a challenging situation. Listen to your client’s request, and help them understand why copying a tattoo isn’t something you want to do. Instead, you can offer alternative suggestions on how you can collaborate to make a new design inspired by the piece they love.

Get Tattoo And Design Training Inside the Artist Accelerator Program

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers. 

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
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Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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