Mike Tyson’s Tattoo: what the…?

Mike Tyson’s tattoo

By Christopher Agostino 6/9/2012

First off, I invite you to add your own comments to this one, as I am sure there are aspects to this that I am missing, and I have as many questions as opinions here. So, woo-hoo!, Hangover 2 gets to open because a judge rules that even though Victor Witmill does own the copyright to the tattoo design he famously put on Mike Tyson that was then imitated in the film, the financial damage of keeping the film closed would effect too many people to be justified. I’d only followed this with amused interest until I heard an “On the Media” report about the possible ramifications of tattoo copyright — and now I have some questions. (On The Media: This Week “Can you Copyright the Human Body?)

Is it the norm for a tattoo artist to retain the rights to a design they put on someone else’s skin? Or did it only apply in this case because Tyson is a celebrity and the tattoo artist was seizing an opportunity? What a weird idea that somebody else might own something on your skin. (In a related opinion of mine, I think that the models we paint at conventions should be allowed to get copies of all the photographs taken of them…the person on whom the bodyart is created is as intrinsic to the result as the art is)

Secondly, how does a non-Maori tattoo artist get to claim intellectual property rites over an obviously traditionally styled design? When Tyson first appeared with this thing around his eye I remember how he talked about it’s traditional origins and significance, so what about it makes it something that some tattoo artist can claim as original? I mean, really?  (In doing a web search for a common use eligible image of the tattoo I did come across an article from Techdirt about an indignant Maori response to this claim — see the quoted portion below)

However, the larger point I want to make, is what’s up with Tyson’s tattoo in the first place?

From the first I saw it and heard his comments about it, I had to ask: what the….? He talked real big about it being the sign of the warrior and all that, and for a few years afterwards I had all sorts of guys asking me to give them a Tyson Warrior Tattoo. But, what the….?

From Robley’s book: photograph from the 1890’s of a “well chiseled” Maori tattoo design

I’m no expert, just a fascinated artist, but everything I’ve read abut Maori tattoo traditions  (“moko”) say that warriors tattooed their whole face, not just some little bit around the eye, and that a big part of the process is enduring the months of painful work required for the full face. I didn’t go back just now to fact-check this little bit but I distinctly remember reading that only priests wore partial tattoos by the eye. Not only did the warriors tattoo the full face, but the designs were incised so deep that the skin became ridged and grooved like a sculpture. In H. G. Robley’s book, Maori Tattooing, first published in 1896 when the tradition was still in general practice, there is not a single example of a man’s face without extensive tattooing.

On the final night at the 2011 Face And Body Art International Convention (FABAIC), sitting in the outdoor courtyard after the party, I met a gentlemen who was extensively tattooed. He was a soldier, recently back from service, and he was fascinated by the painted people walking through the hotel. We talked about what I did, but then I got him to tell me about his tattoos. The first two he showed me were Cherokee inspired designs on his shoulders. Then he showed me others on his arms and legs, each one marking a place he had been in the service — some, it seemed, for lessons learned and experiences to be cherished (like a samurai inspired mark down the back of his neck from time in Japan) and some for more painful memories. We talked for a while and at one point he asked me if I had any Native American blood in me, and I said no, but that I knew that he was Cherokee, for I had learned from our talk that he wouldn’t wear a mark unless he’d earned it.

Robley’s sketch from the 1890s

From Techdirt:

An illustration from 1800, from Karl Gröning’s book “Body Decoration”

Maori Angry About Mike Tyson’s Tattoo Artist Claiming To Own Maori …

Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, author of Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo, described Mr Whitmill’s claims of ownership 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.”

I looked it up, from Wikipedia: Pākehā is a Māori term for New Zealanders who are not of Māori blood lines

There are a lot of intersting little articles about this whole issue, and the legal ramifications of tattoo copyright, here’s one: Copyright Yo Face!. Copyfight: the politics of IP


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16 comments on “Mike Tyson’s Tattoo: what the…?

  1. I find this topic interesting and kind of baffling as well. I’m not sure if it’s right that Witmill should be able to claim copyright on a design that relies so heavily on traditional designs and not his own original ideas. It would be like a musician today trying to claim copyright on a few chords in a song – you can’t copyright that.

    I’m very interested to see what others think about this though.

    The way I see it, if I can compare it to music again (I studied copyright as a musician at University) — a tattoo artist who creates and original design is like an original songwriter in essence.

    The person(s) who wears the tattoo is like a performer(s). When performers perform a song and make money from it, the songwriter is entitled to royalties.

    And therefore if someone one wants to ‘perform’ (wear) that tattoo in a movie – Witmill is then entitled to something. How much he is entitled to though, I have no idea.

    What I’d like to know is…does Witmill try to claim royalties from Tyson whenever Tyson uses his face including the tattoo to make money through movies, commericals etc? Or does the money Tyson paid Witmill for the tattoo also give him rights to commercially exploit the work?

    P.S. I used to live in NZ, “Pakeha” is usually used to mean “white person” not so much any New Zealander with no maori descent. Originally it refered to the early European settlers of New Zealand.

    • Aaron Reil says:

      Witmill is not entitled to squat. A design or piece of art on paper, in a frame, on a wall is their art work and therefore is their property. However, in the skin it is an interpretation of another design, not the original, and is not his property. He was paid to do the work and has no claim to the art in the skin.

      Would Mr. Witmill like to pay royalties to every band whose logo or name he’s done an interpretation of in a tattoo? Or for a piece of flash art he’s tattooed?

      In the skin makes it public domain and open to copy cats.

  2. Aaron Reil says:

    I’ve been a professional tattoo artist for 10 years and have never heard of such a ridiculous claim. First, this tribal piece, like almost all other forms of tribal, has roots in ancient cultures far older than this tattooist, the invention of copyright, or modern tattoo practices. To claim a piece such as this as his own is laughable.

    In the art of tattoo many designs were not the creation of the artist, nor would, or should, an artist claim it as such. The ability to design a suitable representation of an image to work on a 3 dimensional, non symmetrical canvas and replicate these designs into the skin is the mark of the tattoo artist. Weather the original artwork was the tattooists original creation or not, the art and the tattoo are two separate things all together.

  3. agostinoarts says:

    And as I see people’s comments, here and on my duplicate Facebook post, one of the things that occurs to me is that I see bodyart (tattoo or the painted version) as a collaboration between the doer and the wearer, along the lines of Aaron’s comment that the design on paper becomes another design when it is on someone.

    Years ago, when I was designing basic animal faces for trainees at a zoo facepainting concession I talked with an entertainment lawyer about seeking a copyright for the designs, and for facepainting designs in general, and that was about the point we came to: that I could copyright the designs on paper, or a photograph of a design on a face — but it would be the paper version and the photograph itself that retained copyright, not the person’s face — and that another artist could therefor put the same design on someone else’s face and validly claim they had sufficiently re-interpreted the design.

    This case seems to change that, since this judge apparently said the copyright is valid, and I hope that it goes up to another level of judiciary that forms a different opinion, because I don’t see how you can separate the wearer from the art.

  4. jacklyn says:

    If you are beeing payed to do artwork here in Holland or belgium, the copyright belongs to the one who payes you to do it BUT if they do something with your artwork that you really do not approve of you can reclaim your copyright. If I make an artwork on a human body the model has portretright unless you can not see who she/he is. In that aspect she or he always has the right to a free FULL SIZED copy of photos taken, as does the artist himself who has copyright. The photografer has no rights at all, he has to ask premision to the model and painter if he wants to publish or sell the pictures. if someone else uses his pictures and claims them to be their own, than he can offcourse claim his copyright to them.

    Thats how it is here. But if you are beeing payed for it, sorry, its not your propety anymore, its your design, thats it.

    XX Jacklyn from Belgium

  5. […] Tyson wasn’t in (he was great in the first The Hangover).There was a big kerfuffle about the copyright on the tattoo. The tattoo artist sued The Hangover II eventually losing, but nothing is not impetuous about Tyson […]

  6. Maori says:

    Late comment but I’ve just come across this. I am Maori. I’ve seen mike tysons tattoo before and only just found out its suppose to be of Maori origin. Had to look it up because personally, it does not look Maori to me. A Ta Moko (facial tattoo) is something you earn over a lifetime not something you choose to have. You have to live the life of someone who deserves and do not think mike Tyson fits the category. Ta Moko tell stories of your heritage, family, life experiences etc. this tattoo tells me nothing

  7. Charles Lindauer says:

    For what it is worth, the design motif of Tuson’s tattoo design looks more Dayak (indigenous people of Borneo) than Maori. There’s a lot of Dayak designs out. There on people’s skin. Guess it looks “bad”. Looks silly, out of context to people who know anything about Dayak art.

  8. andre 21587 says:

    the bro up top speaks the truth th ta moko is family ancestors where your from the cheifs and elders this is not for mikr tyson or robby williams kiwi roots foreignors need to stay away from our culture its not for sale not our tatoos not our land get the fuk outta here

  9. Tumohe Ngati Hine Te Hapu says:


  10. […] tattoos do not get in the way of their singing, they only get criticism from their fans and media. Mike Tyson has an iconic tattoo on nearly half of his face. Gucci Mane has the iconic ice cream tattooed on […]

  11. Ina George says:

    Being born and raised in NZ as a Cook Island Maori, when I saw Tysons tatoo, I thought it had Maori elements to it.

    But at the end of the day, it is Kirituhi (skin art) not Ta Moko (Traditional Maori) because Tyson may be a warrior, but he is not Tangata Whenua. Only they can wear Ta Moko.

  12. […] period was when she’d wake, spontaneously tattoo her face, inexplicably seeming to intuit Mike Tyson’ing herself was that day’s way to […]

  13. […] Christopher Agostino. The Story behind the Faces. Web. 06 Aug. 2017. http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/2011/06/09/mike-tysons-tattoo-what-the/ […]

  14. REG says:

    Nothing new under the sun…lol, Tyson says why he got it…I dont totally buy it but who really cares…It could represent the eye of horus for all we know and it probably does by the way its strategically placed …he maybe got paid millions to parade it,,,tattooing or taamoko is not owned by anyone… i have many tattoos but dont believe in them anymore…. ra is the sun god….in nz/aotearoa, tangata whenua/people of the land have acquired many demigods…of the sea, wind, forest, war…As far as im concerned, maori/tangata whenua are from Israel and are part of the 12 tribes, one of the sons of Jacob {who was renamed Israel}, Naphtali is the South Pacific peoples…the egyptian sun god ra was introduced to aotearoa by way of white settlers such as elsdon best and percy smith via Hawaii. the eye of horus is satanic freemasonry.

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