Pop culture is a language

I’d assumed everyone realized that Amina’s chestpiece (original article, first follow-up) was based on Pirates of the Caribbean artwork, but since it’s being insisted that I mention it, here’s some of the pictures movie that Tim Kern possibly worked from to create the custom tattoo:

A reader wrote Amina and CC’d me to say,

“Where is the outrage at stealing the [non-tattoo] artwork that someone created? Oh, wait… there is blood added, and the banner was changed because a ‘dead men…’ banner kept that low would have covered your nipples …are you going to continue to persecute this guy because you don’t have the balls to say, ‘Wait, I guess my chestpiece is actually a copy of someone else’s artwork!’ Not only a copy, but an exact duplicate of the swords from Pirates of the… and an exact duplicate of the skull from the other image. I’ll be waiting, probably til eternity, for you to post these two pictures in all of your ranting and raving about the theft of ‘original’ art. If your chestpiece is original because you added a couple things, then this guys is just as original, as he added a mace and the blood is different.”

Tattoos borrow from pop culture. They always have and they always will. For the heavily tattooed Maoris of New Zealand, their mokos — their facial tattoos — contained their family history and told a story of the bearer’s genealogy. For modern individuals, tattoos tell the story of their lives as well, so pop culture references are not only common but required due to the saturation of that imagery in our world. So in order to wear a tattoo that accurately captures a person, often they actually need to borrow from and tell their stories using imagery from movies, advertising, corporate logos, and so on. It’s not theft, it’s truth.

However, there is something fundamentally different between copying a piece of print artwork and copying someone’s tattoo. It’s like the difference between speaking the same language (using the same words) and literally saying the same thing. In terms of the damage done to the wearer, it’s identity theft. The Maoris, when they needed to enter into a contract with a Westerner that required a signature, would draw out a picture of their moko instead of writing their name — and even now, for many heavily tattooed individuals, their tattoos are as linked to their identity as their given name, if not more.

In terms of damage to the original tattoo artist, work has to be done to “translate” the image from something that works well on paper (or whatever the original medium is) to the skin, and an aesthetically pleasing combination for the desired body part has to be designed in order make it a successful tattoo. This is a far more time consuming than one might assume — and there are an infinite number of combinations, variations, and interpretations for any given reference — and it is the quality of this translation that gives the piece unique artistic value as a custom tattoo. Skipping this step and just using someone else’s tattoo takes advantage of the hard work someone else has put into the design, to say nothing of the personal violation.

If Amina’s “fan” had wanted a Pirates of the Caribbean chestpiece rather than Amina’s literal chestpiece, it is true that he would have walked away with a very similar tattoo because both artists would have been working from the same sources. However, it would have been a fundamentally different tattoo, and comparing the two “thefts” is not valid.

Update: In regards to telling the story of one’s life with pop culture, Amina talks about this chestpiece in an interview that will appear in the December issue of Skin&Ink magazine:

"Currently my favorite tattoo is my chest piece, which was designed and tattooed by Tim Kern at Last Rites in New York City. Many people believe that the piece was created after a Motorhead song, and even though I am a Motorhead fan, that song was not in mind during the design of the tattoo. The piece was actually designed after the talking pirate skull in the Anaheim Disneyland ride 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' Being an Anaheim native, I owned a Disneyland annual pass since I was a teenager, and many summers were spent making out in 'Pirates of the Caribbean' — "Dead Men Tell No Tales" had just become hauntingly familiar to me."

Pick up the magazine for full coverage.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by BMEzine.com LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by BMEzine.com LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

5 thoughts on “Pop culture is a language

  1. i know this is old, but its worth commenting on. i like how amina is/was screaming foul about copyright infringement — even though she has disney characters tattooed on her forearms. what a whining hypocrite.

  2. being an artist myself i have to sympathize with amina, i would hate it if somebody were to rip off a piece of art that i created. The fact that her tattoo is based on a common saying and a talking skull is true but the art is still original, and the copy that was made is VERY OBVIOUSLY made to (nearly) replicate it. The artist tried to deviate a little from the original by adding a chain and a different handle on a dagger, but the fact is everything else is a near copy. Its not like you cant do something with the same theme, but you have to at least try and make an original design. my second point is that TATTOO ARTIST COPYRIGHT THEIR WORK ALL THE TIME. if you go to a parlor and start flipping through the books, it is all original copyrighted artwork. and lastly to the person who called her a hypocrite for having Disney characters on her arm… i see where you are coming from but it is different when somebody uses a mass-marketed cultural icon than when somebody tries to pass off original art as their own. for god sakes nobody could get away with painting a copy of the Mona Lisa and get away with it. The “artist” deserves to lose his reputation.

  3. The above article was perfectly worded and perfectly put. Fenix Feu also makes excellent points. Amina has every right to feel as though she was thoroughly betrayed. The “artist” of the rip off should be ashamed.

  4. I just ran across this article. A little late I guess. But, WHERE WAS THE OUTRAGE FOR AMINA COPYING THOSE IMAGES POSTED ABOVE. The artists of those images probably worked very hard to create an original image to represent their products. Tim Kern stole the images, meshed them together and claimed them to be his own? Dreadful. Equivalent to a thief stealing a tv and posting it on ebay as their own to sell. Shame on Kern for his lack of imagination in this piece.

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