Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Tattoo Artists vs Christian Audigier

In my talk about the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry, I talked a little bit about tattoo artists. The two-dimensional designs that they create are protected in the same way that any drawing or painting is protected. However, it’s been a standard practice in the industry to ignore those protections and to share, reuse, remix and refashion designs made by other artists. Apparently it wasn’t considered cool to ask The Man to protect your property: in fact, like most fashion designers, I suspect that tattoo artists aspired to be copied — their fame and their prestige depended upon it. Just like the fashion industry, it’s a reputation-based industry where the originator of a design is respected, revered . . .  and, if the work resonates with people, it’s inevitably knocked-off. That’s how powerful design memes penetrate the collective consciousness. And when your work ends up indelibly printed on another person’s body, that’s a pretty clear testament to the desirability of your work and the deep commitment of your fanbase.

Some might argue that the level of design innovation in the tattoo industry should have suffered when artists decided not to exercise copyright protection over their work. After all, without ownership there is no incentive to innovate, and so lazy artists would only steal one another’s designs and the artform would wither. However, I would argue that the tattoo industry has become a  thriving subculture (which is hardly “sub” anymore) precisely because they allowed a tight-knit reputation-based remix culture to blossom and flourish. The work of several tattoo artists is now worth a fortune and it’s migrated well beyond the tattoo parlor. Like grafitti artists, tattoo artists have found that there is a strong demand for their street credibility among advertisers and marketers who are desperate to align the products they’re promoting with the distinctive look and feel of an “authentic,” noncommercial subculture.

Enter Christian Audigier.

Audigier has worked with tattoo artists for years, commissioning work from them and reproducing their designs on an ever broader slate of consumer goods and apparel. Long Beach-based Buckley Crispin is the latest tattoo artist to sue Audigier for copyright infringement. Crispin claims he had sold some designs to Audigier for some specific uses, but he certainly never intended for his iconic work to end up on dog clothing.

This case is fascinating to me, of course, because both the fashion industry and the tattoo industry function as “low-IP” industries, where a robust remix culture dominates. I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising that a copyright battle has emerged where these two creative industries have intersected. While it’s cool in the tattoo industry to let your work be remixed by other artists, I’m guessing Crispin’s artistic community doesn’t think he’s an ass for suing Audigier, who is decidedly not part of that community. Crispin’s suit is about big money (potentially 100s of millions of dollars, according to the Daily Journal), but it’s also  about reputation: managing reputation is serious business for a tattoo artist who’s work loses its authority when it’s slapped on doggie do-dads. While fashion designers have no copyright protection to fall back on, they must be strategic about the incorporation of anyone else’s work into their own. Audigier, it seems, has pushed his licensing empire too far, alienating the artists who define his own line.

And without a signature style, a designer’s got nothing.



  Howard Stein wrote @

I loved your TED talk. I pursued your point of view further on your site. And I celebrate the explosion of creativity many of us in the visual arts swim in, for inspiration. However, you make one crucial distinction in this post:
“they allowed a tight-knit reputation-based remix culture to blossom and flourish”
There it is.
Step outside and try to carry the rules — or lack of them with you — and trouble lies ahead. I’m a graphic artist and designer. We are not tight knit. Most of us have never heard of one another. Our clients, we hope, are large companies with budgets to match. We don’t do trade shows. It is not an honor to be ripped off. There is no advantage that I can see to my work being appropriated and remixed and resold. I am trying to see where I can get on board with you as we all are influenced by everything we see. New formulations appear, rules are broken, the professions grow. But having a design I did for a small local client appear on an unrelated mass produced item that earns some corporation millions? This is not the healthy blend that exists in the fashion, or tattoo, industry.

  From the sickroom « Fair Duty wrote @

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