3 Reasons You Kind of Suck For Copying Someone Else's Tattoo

Someone asked my tattoo artist for a stencil of one of my tattoos so they could get the exact same one. Yeah, no.
Publish date:
September 11, 2015
tattoos, Tattoo Artists

My left forearm has the distinct honor of being the canvas for the tattoo that has garnered artist Becca Genné-Bacon her most-liked Instagram post, besting an epic thigh cactus by about a dozen double-clicks.


a royal sheep tonight for @marcirobin. thanks lady! 🐩👑

A post shared by becca genné-bacon (@beccagennebacon) on

(Apparently, it's also her dad's favorite tattoo of all the photos she's posted of her work. Thanks, Mr. Bacon! I loved you in Hollow Man. Oh, different Mr. Bacon? OK, well, thanks anyway, and congratulations on being such a popular meat product.)

The crown-wearing sheep was done five months ago; it was my second tattoo from Becca and my fourth ever. Having gotten my first tattoo in April of 2014 at age 35, I was a relatively late bloomer when it comes to getting inked—late enough that I feel too old to get away with typing "getting inked"—but now I'm hooked. I got a fifth tattoo as a walk-in with one of Becca's colleagues, Ryan Belfance, a couple weeks ago, and I have another appointment with Becca in December. (Her wait list is no joke!)

I've gotten a lot of compliments on my sheep tattoo and have even had it recognized from Instagram, which is pretty cool, but there's a downside to sporting the work of an awesome tattoo artist: people may try to copy it.

Becca told me that someone recently called The End is Near, the tattoo shop where she works, saying they'd seen a photo of my tattoo and asking if they could have a stencil of it so they could get the same one at a different tattoo shop.

"We were like, noooooo," Becca said, the extra-long nooooo implying that such a request is a cardinal tattoo sin. "It was a custom design of an original idea that you and I sat down, discussed and created together. You paid for a custom piece of art, and it should stay yours."

But even though Becca nipped that request in the bud like a bud-nipping champ, that doesn't mean other people won't try to copy it or any cool tattoo they see on Instagram, Pinterest, Bustle (I swear, they have new tattoo-idea listicle every day), or another human being.

Here's why that's not cool.

It's theft of the original artist's intellectual property.

They—oh, that illusive, omniscient "they"—say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, when it comes to trying to get a stencil or template of another artist's original work, like that aforementioned nitwit tried to do with my tattoo, or asking a different artist to copy a tattoo based off of a photo of someone else's tattoo, that's not really innocent imitation.

"It's more like stealing," Becca says, and if a tattoo artist agrees to do that for you, they're "making money off of that person's work." Obviously, the physical act of tattooing requires a ton of skill, and that's a major part of what you're paying for, but so is the creation of the design itself.

Even though a tattoo artist doesn't copyright what they put on a client's body, it's best to treat their work as if they do.

It's an insult to the artist who'd be tattooing you.

It could actually be pretty difficult to find a talented tattoo artist who'd be willing recreate someone else's design. In addition to a do-unto-others kind of thing—would they want someone ripping off their work?—tattoo artists have fostered distinct, signature styles. Going to someone with another artist's work basically says, "Yeah, I'm sure you're great and all, but this other artist's work is REALLY great."

One of the reasons I've repeatedly taken my tattoo ideas to Becca is because I love her style. Another artist would've interpreted my vision differently—not necessarily better or worse—but differently, because every artist is different, and they pride themselves on their unique styles and likely want to be sought out for them.

Many tattoo artists known for specific styles are more than talented enough to adapt to requests for designs that fall outside their usual category and can recreate existing art that you love; for example, paintings by the late Alphonse Mucha are a popular—and public domain—template for tattoos. But if the tattoo you want exists only as a tattoo by another artist on someone else's body, that's a pretty disrespectful request.

The exception to these first two reasons: flash. No, not those metallic temporary tattoos that college girls wear to music festivals. Flash tattoos are the classic designs you'll often see covering the walls of tattoo shops—vintage or vintage-style traditional tattoos are essentially expected to be reproduced.

"But don't get it free off the internet," Becca recommends. It's still someone's work. "Buy a print."

You're disregarding the personal meaning behind the original owner's tattoo.

It's rare to find a tattoo that doesn't have at least some significance to the person it's on beyond "I just thought it looked cool." (Exceptions on the xoJane staff excluded.) Of course you want it to look awesome, but committing to a permanent alteration of your skin often comes with more profound inspiration.

My sheep, for example, is a reference to my Hebrew name, Malka Rachel. My parents told me a long time ago that Malka means "queen," but it wasn't until my 20s that I learned Rachel means "ewe"—you know, a female sheep.

So I decided I wanted a tattoo that more or less expressed the combined meaning: queen of the sheep. And it's actually pretty fitting considering I was also born in the Chinese year of the sheep, and my zodiac sign is Aries, which is symbolized by the ram, a male sheep. Hell, even the name Marci is derived from the Roman god of war, Mars, whose Greek counterpart is Ares, which is a homonym for Aries. (OK, that last one was a stretch, but still.)

It's a pretty personal meaning; I've had my Hebrew name for as long as I've had my legal name. It doesn't get much more personal.

And while it's entirely possible that the person who requested the stencil is named Malka Rachel or just genuinely loves royal ruminants, seeing someone else with the exact same tattoo would feel very similar to how I've felt when I've been plagiarized.

I don't own the idea of a sheep wearing a crown, but like Becca said, my concept and her artistic style led to the collaborative result that will be on my arm for the rest of my life. If you really want a royal-sheep tattoo, I'm sure there's another artist out there who can interpret that idea in their own awesome style without forging what Becca created specifically for me. (In other words: BACK OFF.)

Instagram and Pinterest are a great way to find a tattoo artist and even inspiration for your next tattoo. But it's not a catalogue. There's nothing wrong with showing an artist tattoos or illustrations you like the concept of; for instance, I knew I wanted a black and gray evergreen-tree branch for my latest tattoo, so I showed Ryan some illustrations I liked, and after we discussed what would work best, he then hand-drew a branch in his own style.

But requesting an exact replica of a stranger's tattoo? That's an insult to everyone knowingly and unknowingly involved.