Getting a tattoo of your favourite art? These tips will help you do right by the original artist

Follow this expert advice and nobody gets hurt. The tattoo itself, though, will definitely hurt a bit.

Follow this expert advice and nobody gets hurt. The tattoo itself, though, will definitely hurt a bit

At least twice a week, fans ask Alex Garant if they can get a tattoo based on her trippy portraits. On the left, her original painting. On the right, a tattoo by Jonathon Anderson. (Instagram/@alexgarantart)

So, you want a tattoo. Not just any tattoo, but a copy of your favourite work of art — a painting or a drawing or a wood-block print of a fire-breathing narwhal that you may or may not have discovered after hours, if not weeks, of trawling Instagram and Pinterest and maybe even the depths of Ello in a moment of creative desperation.

Getting it done is easy, but getting it done right requires some basic etiquette, especially since asking someone to copy another artist's work can be a touchy subject for everyone involved. The subject isn't quite as sensitive as a ribcage tattoo, but it's somewhere in the same irritating ballpark — and yet, requests are common, leaving people on both sides of the needle wrestling with the do's and don'ts.

"I think there's a lot of confusion about it," says Lindsay April, founder of Twin Oaks Tattoo in Toronto. And that's where this list comes in.




Before someone freaks out over your sweet new neck tattoo — someone other than your mom, anyway — read on. Artists and tattooists shared their tips with CBC Arts.


Contact the original artist


Before you even think of entering a tattoo parlour, this is the No. 1 thing you should do. Find the person who created your must-have design, and ask for permission.


Toronto painter Alex Garant gets tattoo requests from fans twice a week. In Mia Ohki's case, the Edmonton illustrator says she receives similar messages on the daily.


"I see it as a huge compliment if people want to get my stuff tattooed on them," says Garant, whose pop-surrealist portraits are so popular that tattoo blogs have cranked out their own listicles on the subject. But both she and Ohki say their feelings are mixed when they stumble across a tattoo — whether online or IRL — that was done without the courtesy of asking.


"It's pretty easy to contact an artist these days," says Garant. Send a message on Facebook, Twitter, whatever. And while a response from everyone isn't guaranteed, it takes minimal effort to show your respect. Even Banksy has an email address listed on his website.


Confirm your sources


Granted, you'll probably want to make sure you're sliding into the right person's DMs. When your tattoo artist asks where you found your reference artwork, "Pinterest" is not the right answer, so you'll need to do a little Googling to find the primary source.


"Sometimes clients don't realize they're asking for another artist's work," says April.


And that same common mistake applies to clients who've drawn their own designs, too. Maybe you whipped up a sketch yourself, but is the idea original? "Sometimes, I'll get clients who will draw an image based on something else and kind of trace over." If you're using somebody else's concept, be mindful that credit is due there, too.

I see it as a huge compliment if people want to get my stuff tattooed on them.- Alex Garant, artist


Share your plans


Stay cool. A PowerPoint presentation is definitely not required. In Garant's opinion, a simple and direct message is A-OK. "Contact me. Just tell me, 'Hey, I want to get a tattoo.' Just inform me: 'This is what I'm planning.'"


Attaching a picture for reference is also a good move. Says Garant: "Usually, I like to know which piece they want done."


And if you're going to be changing the artist's original work in any way, loop them in. Ohki says that it's a common request, and she's typically open to any tweaks that fans suggest. "I really like to see how you're altering it because maybe that wasn't my initial intention."


Be prepared for a no


"Usually I'm elated that people want to have my art on their skin permanently," says Ohki, but she's declined requests in the past.


It might seem like life won't be complete until a particular painting is tattooed on your bicep, but if it happens to you, respect the fact that you don't own the work and move on.


Going against the artist's wishes isn't just a dink move — it affects them in the long run. Ohki says she's experienced this sort of thing firsthand. She does a lot of commissioned drawings, for example, and she promises certain image rights as part of the sale. Want a tattoo based on a drawing that someone else bought? For her, that's a no no, but it hasn't stopped people from copying pics found online. "My credibility goes down a little bit because it looks like I've been distributing something that was meant to be exclusive," she says.


Buy something


"If you love the artwork enough to get it on you, you should maybe want it on your wall, too," laughs Garant.


So if an artist says yes to your request, repay the solid and support them.


Garant always asks that people buy a print from her shop if they want a tattoo. (Prices start under $20, and a print can be helpful asset to bring with you to the tattoo parlour once you're ready to get the process started.)

The least you can do is find a way to give a little bit back to the original artist.- Alex Garant, artist


Many artists sell "tattoo tickets" or "tattoo passes" through their websites. Ohki started offering them earlier this summer. For $50, she'll provide a PDF of the requested illustration along with a permission slip that clients can bring to their tattoo artist. 


Says Garant: "The least you can do is find a way to give a little bit back to the original artist."


Research the right tattooist for the job


Garant offers the same advice to anyone who sends her a tattoo request: "I always say, 'Choose your tattoo artist carefully."


If you choose a piece that's fairly complex — and her double-eyed portraits definitely fit the description — you need someone with the right chops. "If the tattoo artist doesn't have the skills for it, you might not end up with a great reproduction."


Study tattoo portfolios. Are you looking for photorealism or minimal line work? Get yourself an artist who's already working in the same style as your dream tattoo.

Choose your tattoo artist carefully.- Alex Garant, artist


That bit's obvious, and you can do most of the legwork online. But to suss out the perfect candidate, you'll probably need to add some IRL sleuthing. Dave Munro, who's run Trouble Bound Tattoos in St. John's since 2003, suggests having not one but several conversations with a prospective tattooist.

"Sometimes it's not just the portfolio that you want to understand — you also want to understand the person you're working with," he says. For example: "Some people are very staunch and static about how they do things. If the ideas are going to require a little leniency, you need someone you're going to work with."


Be prepared to hear no from the tattoo artist, too


Tattooing is an art in itself, and especially if you're reaching out to someone known for signature, custom designs, there's another wrinkle to consider. Is it insulting to ask for a reproduction of another person's artwork? 


Munro's take: "That would depend on the person, and they're usually very forthright about it."


To wit, here's April's answer: "I think it definitely is."

I would be WAY more inclined to take someone on if they already have permission and everything's good to go.- Lindsay April, tattoo artist


April's done tattoos based on other artists in the past, including some inspired by Garant's paintings, but she no longer does reproductions. Her current focus is her own original designs, delicate fine-lined sketches inspired by nature. ("I find I kind of avoid faux pas a little bit that way.")


The bottom line, says Munro: "If you're meeting with resistance from the artist, walk away from it. It's just disrespectful."


Show your receipts


When you begin talking to your tattoo artist, make sure to show them that you have the artist's permission. April suggests leading with that info. 


"I would be WAY more inclined to take someone on if they already have permission and everything's good to go," she says.


Keep records of your messages with the original artist, and share them with the person doing your tattoo. "I like to see proof of the emails between the artist and the client, just to be 100 per cent certain," says April, and she also adds that she's a fan of "tattoo tickets" like the ones Ohki offers. "You know right away that they've [the client has] purchased something."


Be prepared to make some changes


Unless they're some kind of wizard, your tattoo artist will never be able to deliver a copy that's 100 per cent perfect. They're working in a completely different medium, for one thing, and the design will have to be adjusted accordingly. Plus, what looks great on Instagram, might not have the same "je ne sais wow" when it's stretched across your stomach.


A tattoo artist will likely offer some suggestions for adapting the design to your body.


Says Munro: "I might be seeing issues within the image where I have to tell them [the client], 'OK, this is not going to hold up well over time. We might need to simplify things.' Or, 'This is already somebody else's image — we should change it so it's catered more to you.'


Credit, credit, credit


According to Garant, acknowledging the artist is "the most important thing" to remember, so be sure you're doing it right. 


Once your itchy, scabby days are behind you and that tattoo is photo-ready, give the artists involved a shoutout on social media.


Tag them where possible, but don't leave it at that. "Just putting a tag in there really misses the mark. It looks like something you've created if you don't explicitly explain it on Instagram," says April.


Make sure you're explicitly crediting artists in your captions, as well. "Be polite about it," she adds. Think of it as an open thank you note. "That artist worked really hard on that drawing, so it's important to be grateful for them allowing you to use their work, I think."

It's a better creative community if we can all support each other and tag each other and help each other get exposure.- Alex Garant, artist


And the same tip applies to both clients and tattooists.


"I've seen a few tattoo artists that actually presented tattoos that were done based on my artwork at tattoo conventions," says Garant. "But they never mentioned me. Ever."


"It's a better creative community if we can all support each other and tag each other and help each other get exposure," she says. "And I don't think it takes anything away from their work, either."


Share photos of the original artwork, too


Not everyone's going to have the same impeccable manners as you, though. When your tattoo photos are re-shared by someone else, all those tags and gracious thank yous could get lost to the Katamari ball of random information that we call the Internet.


Instead of just sharing a photo of your new tattoo, consider posting a side-by-side comparison instead — a collage of your fresh ink next to the original artwork that inspired it. Garant asks people to do just that, and when they do, she's more likely to publish the tattoo photos on her own social media channels, an especially appealing prospect for all the wannabe influencers out there. (She's currently standing at 95.1K followers on Instagram.)


"I always like to do a comparison," she says. "This way, the tattoo artist and the original artist can display part of their process in the tattoo."


And if you got a tattoo before reading this list, it's not too late to play nice


"It does happen where people didn't ask me permission," says Garant, but unlike tattoos themselves, the damage isn't permanent.


Be on your best behaviour moving forward. For example, Garant suggests always crediting the original artist when you share photographs of your tattoo.


"Just mention my name," she says. "Longterm, all artists are trying to build their fanbase."


"These days with social media, where content circulates so quickly, if you can get your name out there or a tag or even just having your name out there, it truly, truly helps building your brand. For me, that's more valuable than anything else."

(CBC Arts)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.