Appropriation

In the Hangover Part 2 one of the main characters Stu wakes up with a tattoo on his face resembling the one on the face of Ex Boxing Champ Mike Tyson. The American tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill claimed that the tattoo presented in the movie was so close to the one he tattooed on Tyson that it was an infringement of Intellectual property rights. I believe there is certainly some issues that need to be resolved around Intellectual property rights involving modern tattooing practices, but I believe the issues get a little bit more difficult when it come to the tattooing practices of Indigenous peoples and cultures.

In an article published in the New Zealand herald on June 21, 2011 the follow statement was made:

“Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, author of Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo, described Mr Whitmill’s claims of ownership to the Herald last month as insufferable arrogance.

“It is astounding that a Pakeha tattooist who inscribes an African American’s flesh with what he considers to be a Maori design has the gall to claim … that design as his intellectual property,” she said.

“The tattooist has never consulted with Maori, has never had experience of Maori and originally and obviously stole the design that he put on Tyson.

“The tattooist has an incredible arrogance to assume he has the intellectual right to claim the design form of an indigenous culture that is not his.”

The reason I say that the issue becomes more difficult for me, is not because I don’t agree with Professor  Ngahuia Te Awekotuku that it is arrogance on Whitmall’s part, but that for me there are many other things to consider.  I have read that in Maori culture that many of the Moko designs are a representation of who the wearer is, a record of lineage and was and I’m sure still used as the wearers signature. In the Haida culture I have also read that many of the Tattoos on Haida chiefs were a exclaiming of their clan and family heritage. In these cases and any cases similar to them, I have no argument that these designs are the exclusive intellectual property of the culture and should not be used in any form.

For me the problem comes when Maori and other Indigenous artist put their designs into the open market and in the consumer system, that the argument for explicit protection becomes more tenuous. The reason I say this is because the design then becomes part of a system which works on different principles, and when the artist makes the choice to operate in that system they agree to the terms of that system.

The second problem I see, which I haven’t thought a huge amount about is the interesting relationship between the artist who designs and applies the tattoo, and the wearer who in the capitalist system pays the artist too apply the work. In this relationship it seems difficult to say who owns the tattoo and who has the rights to it. I’m not sure, I would be interested to hear from anyone who has any thoughts on these issues.


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