How to use reference without stealing pt.2

In almost any art form directly copying another artists work, particularly if said artist has a distinctive look to their work, is considered wrong and a sign that the copier has both a lack of creativity and scruples. In tattooing this is made all the more distasteful because the work being copied is being taken from someone else’s body and then applied to another’s body! The “violation” is not only against the original artist, but also taints the wearer of the original work And the wearer of the copy!

Because of the ubiquitous nature of internet and the popularity of tattooing, people who do bite another artists tattoos are almost always caught and called out, and if the copier seems to be a serial biter a reputation for being a hack follows them. Believe me, the only thing tattooers love to do more than bitch about tattooing is to pile onto an unrepentant biter! Of course, some times synchronicity happens and very similar tattoos are created accidentally, but it’s pretty obvious when someone has made an exact copy of a tattoo and especially so when they have done it many times. Sometimes when called out the copycat will justify their thievery with some version of “it’s what the customer wanted” or ” this is what they brought me and wouldn’t let me change anything”. This excuse is ridiculous because as tattooers we always have the right to refuse to do a tattoo and in all my years of tattooing I have never met a customer who didn’t want their tattoo to be a unique creation for themselves. More likely is that the copycat is lazy and rather than do the extra work of telling the customer why they would be happier with a unique version of the art they brought in, I they just slap it on the light table and commence to half-assing it.

So biting other tattooers work is clearly bad, and yet. . . . Looking at other tattooers work is an important part of forming our own unique styles, of stirring that creative stew in our heads, and of setting a bar to aspire to. Tattooing in a vacuum often results in the “monkey house” effect. When one first goes into the monkey house part of a zoo the stench is overwhelming, shocking even, but after an hour you get sort of acclimated to it and it doesn’t seem so bad as when you first walked in. Tattooing while completely cut off from what other tattooers are doing often results in the artist doing mediocre work and not knowing it since they have no frame of reference, they have been Inside their own monkey house for too long!

So how do you use other tattooers work as reference without stealing?

One way is to look at the technical aspects of work you like but  feel are lacking in your own work. If, for example , there is a tattoo with a wing I am particularly taken by, I will try to understand why I’m so enamored of that design. Is it drawn a particular way? is it the way the wing fits in among the rest of the surrounding area? is it the placement on the body? In short, I’m looking for the key to how to take the technical elements I like  find a way to use it in my own work instead of stealing the specific image and reproducing it. Copying someone’s tattoo won’t make me any better, but understanding why I’m so taken with a particular element of the tattoo can help me to refine those areas in my own work I’m not in love with yet.

If I have a tattoo coming up and am not totally confident with my ideas I will often look at similar tattoos for a clue as to how I can tackle my own upcoming tattoo, but I only do this once my own drawing is already finished (more on this later). The idea is to use the other tattoo to tackle specific areas technically, not to copy the previous work wholesale. For example, if we stick to the wing example, lets say I have a chest eagle tattoo coming up but I’m concerned as to how to keep the wings heavily shaded but not to the level that they become muddy or look like a cover up, I might take a look as several other tattoos of chest eagles and examine the ones whose wing shading I like the most. In this example I am still looking at other tattooers work, but applying the technique to my own drawing, not lifting the actual drawing of the other tattooers wing.

What, then, do you do if the customer brings you a picture of an existing tattoo and wants you to do the same thing on them? Personally, I start right out by gently explaining “I know that you want an original tattoo and I can’t copy this directly, but I am excited to draw you something with the same feeling that is custom for you”. This allows me to start out with my line in the sand (I.e. I won’t copy another tattoo) but let’s me present it without insulting the client or expecting them to have knowledge of tattooings arcane etiquette about copying. The fact is that most customers don’t know biting is considered a bad thing, it is our job to teach them (kindly) while at the same time showing them that we can do better for them. If they are adamant that they will only accept an exact copy (which has never happened to me in 16 years of tattooing) then I would politely decline to do their tattoo. However,  I doubt this will happen to you, and even if it does, there are always other clients. You only have one reputation and sense of self-respect, it is never worth it to devalue both for money.

Ok then, how could one use the clients magazine/internet print~out as reference to create an original tattoo? At this point I actually have a “technique” that has worked well in letting me capture the essence of what the customer likes without (deliberately or accidentally) biting the original tattoo. First, I will take a good look at the original photo, for about a minute or so, study the elements the customer expressed the most interest in, and then put it away from me. I literally put the original picture face down and away from my drawing area, and then begin my own drawing. The rule I establish for myself is to never, from that moment on, to look at the original photo while drawing. What I am trying to do here is use the fact that few of us have perfect memories to allow my own style to mix with my fading memory of the original picture. I might have tons of other reference about the subject matter at hand, but no pictures of tattoos, any tattoos. At this point the process is about my sketching of an idea divorced from the influence of any existing tattoos.

So, If the clients photo is of a rose tattoo; I’ll study it, put it away, then use my reference pics of real roses, and start drawing. I believe that the original minute of studying the client source photo is enough to get the gist of the theme and from there my own imagination takes over, but with the general memory of the original tattoo added to the mix of influences. When it is time to apply the tattoo I will allow myself to look at the original picture to see if there are particular technical elements the customer wants which I can transfer to my own drawing. It is important to note, as mentioned  above, that at this stage my own drawing is already finished and I’m not pulling specific imagery from the original work. In this way a customer who likes a particular color combination or level of dark/light can get a tattoo that feels like the one they brought in, but is unique to them and will never be mistaken for a copy of the original.

I’ve done this for years now and what never fails to amuse me is how different my drawings are from the magazine/print out picture and yet, every time, the customer loves it! They almost always tell me that they like “their” version “better than the original”. I believe that this is because even if they don’t know that it’s a tattoo culture taboo to copy anothers tattoo that they still want an original with all the personal elements in it that a straight up copy of another tattoo wont have. You might make a customer “happy” by biting a tattoo but i don’t believe that you will form that connection with them the way that a tattooer can if we take the time and effort to personalize the tattoo for them specifically. The difference between tattooing a person once and making them a part of your clientele is making them feel your genuine respect for them and the art of tattooing.

Respect seems to be at the core of all of this. In general, biters seem to be lacking that respect; for the customer, for the original artist, for his or her client, and saddest of all, for themselves.

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