Creative Expression and the Human Canvas: An Examination of Tattoos as a Copyrightable Art Form

In Warner Brothers’ 2011 film The Hangover: Part II, actor Ed Helms portrays Stu Price, a man who inadvertently gets a tribal tattoo on his face, reminding many moviegoers of boxer Mike Tyson’s infamous facial tattoo. Mr. Tyson’s tattoo artist sued Warner Brothers, claiming that the film’s public display of his work of visual art amounted to copyright infringement. While this particular case was settled out of court, it raises interesting questions regarding the applicability of copyright law to tattoos.This Note addresses the issues introduced by this lawsuit. It begins by discussing the Copyright Act of 1976 and its potential impact on the rights of tattoo artists and their customers. It then proceeds to discuss the worthiness of tattoos as an art form subject to copyright protection. This Note also analyzes the unique human rights implications inherent in affording artists control over art that is permanently affixed to a person. It concludes with a recommendation that fits within the framework of current copyright law, while balancing the rights of the artist to retain control over her creation with the rights of the tattoo recipient to retain bodily autonomy.

The full text of this Note is available to download as a PDF.