Tattoos as remix or creative plagiarism?

Mashup and remix cultures are both ascribed with a false sense of “newness” that has come with the evolution of digital culture and user generated content. As mentioned in my presentation, both terms actually have longstanding histories within artistic production, as original thought has become extremely relative. Stemming from my own interests, I want to look at the role of remix and mashup within tattoo culture.

Tattooing has always held fine lines between what is considered a remix, and what is seen as a blatant copy. American traditional styles have followed American navy history and are characterized by their reusable nature. Copying the style of sailor Jerry himself is seen as a completely acceptable act. Arguably, originality is not a goal within American traditional tattooing, as the remixing and creation of modern American Traditional often leaves us with a final product that is very similar to the original.

(In this case above, see Sailor Jerry original on the left, and modern American traditional on the right. Note: of course not every modern American traditional style is an exact copy)

Evolving, neo-traditional styles see a larger aspect of remix, as once American or Japanese traditional styles are rework into new, modern takes on old classics. In neo-traditional styles, the idea of tattoo “copy cats” is very much alive, as pieces that look even remotely similar are often shamed within the tattoo community. Yet, I struggle to define any clear boundaries in which remix, becomes plagiarism. The very foundations of tattooing comes from a common support of mashup and remix, as similar yet different piece pop up across tattooing styles, and communities. However, where an exact replica (as seen above) is okay, an overtly similar tattoo (as seen below) is not.         images.jpegtumblr_nbv2w5hzjf1reywv1o1_1280

In the above image we can see one tattoo artist publicly shaming another for producing a piece of art that is similar to her own. Here I feel that tattooing brings up an aspect of produser culture that Axel Bruns was unable to flush out. What happens when users begin to remix each other work? Remix culture sounds like a fully positive experience for its members in theory, but it doesn’t account for individuals who are unwilling to play by the rules. At the same time it fosters a false sense of originality, as tracking the origins of an original thought is extremely difficult. “Popular” artists become transcribed with a sense of power to call out “lesser” artists for pieces of art that are similar to their own, ultimately forming hierarchies of creativity.

As per my featured image, this hierarchy can extend past tattooers themselves into celebrity culture. Simply searching “stole my tattoo” on YouTube gives rise to hundreds of videos of YouTuber stars making claims of intellectual theft. One particular individual Katrin Berndt (feature image) makes a particularly harsh video calling out one of her fans for “stealing” her chest piece and ultimately being a bad person because of it. She attempts to make the distinction between reusing a common traditional piece, and the theft of her tattoo, but her argument ultimately falls a little flat. Other celebrities, like Trace Cyrus, who claimed that the tattoo of an anchor on his face had been stolen by numerous people, give rise to this idea that each tattoo is completely original.

Without diving too far into the moral debate surrounding tattoo reproduction, I wanted to use this example to showcase a darker side to remix culture, and the role that publicity and economic factors play. Not everyone is happy with the idea of sharing credit for their work. As much as I appreciate and support Brun’s take on mashup and produser culture, I think it is important to consider those individuals who are unable to accept the realities of distributed creativity.



  1. Emma, this is a really interesting post and I think that the points you bring up about originality in the field can be spread across other creative endeavours.

    The idea that everyone thinks they have an original tattoo reminds me how hard it is to actually come up with something original. It’s almost as if the industry is over saturated, making it impossible to make something entirely original. Not to mention that sharing tattoos has been facilitated by platforms like Instagram, making it even easier to take inspiration from a tattoo that you see and that you like.

    This “over-saturation” reminds me of the music industry in that it seems like every other month you’re hearing about an artist plagiarizing another artist’s creativity. But I always think about how music has been commercially produced since the early 20th century, and is there really an infinite amount of chord progressions that sound good together? The artist may think they are producing something original, but there’s such a large body of work that already exists, they could be accidentally reusing a beat/melody.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nicole! I appreciate your comparison between such seemingly different realms of creative production. At first glance, music creation, and tattooing seem to belong to two different worlds, but through this compassion one can see just how alike they truly are. Without trying to be to broad, I think the definition of originality needs to be reconsidered. Of course, my post has bias as I believe that tattoo “copying” is a bit of a farce, but it is important to question intellectual property claims.


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