To stay in the loop with the latest features, news and interviews from the creative community around licensing, sign up to our weekly newsletter here
Tattoo artist Matt Difa discusses the complexities of Lucasfilm’s licensing at Star Wars Celebration
Matt Difa, you’re a tattoo artist – with some insights into licensing! Thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me!
I have the sense there are some interesting legal aspects to tattoo licensing, but let’s start with where we met: Star Wars Celebration. Am I to understand that Lucasfilm licenses a number of tattoo artists to work at that event?
Yes, the contract we sign gives us a temporary licence – just for the event – to tattoo Star Wars images. We work as a sort of collective – Ink Fusion Empire – since only licensed products can be sold at the Star Wars Celebration. You don’t need a license to tattoo Star Wars tattoos anywhere else.
And just so I understand this a little better, what are you licensed to do at that show? Realistic tattoos? Something more stylised? Or both?
The license covers us tattooing anything Star Wars themed, whether it’s a screen-accurate image, a character portrait, or an artist’s interpretation of something from the Star Wars universe.
And what is it that you tend towards yourself, Matt?
Personally, I’m most known for tattooing my own new-school, comic-style interpretation of Star Wars themes. We have some limitations when we’re tattooing under a license, though: it must all be family friendly; nothing with any more nudity or violence than you can find in anything Lucasfilm Ltd have created. When tattooing at the shop without the license, none of this applies and we can tattoo anything we like.
So anyone aspiring to an ‘Obi Wank-a-Knobby’ tattoo needs to swerve the event and visit your studio! How many artists are at a show like that?
At this particular show, there were 28 licensed artists. In the full course of our team’s tattooing at Star Wars shows over the years, there have been around 100 different artists involved. The most we had at any show, though, was back in 2017 – there were around 50.
Wow! So it’s pretty big business. And how many tattoos do you do over the course of that event?
Oh, that varies a lot. I personally do one to three each day, depending on the size. I start in the first hour and tattoo non-stop until the show closes. Some of the artists that cater more for the spur-of-the-moment, walk-up customers will do as many as 20 small tattoos in one day. Literally hundreds of tattoos were done at the Celebration just gone – please don’t make me count the consent forms, though!
Ha! No, hundreds is a good enough answer! Thank you.
Funnily enough, though, the first couple of celebrations that I worked were back when Disney didn’t own Lucasfilm. Then our contracts meant we paid a percentage in royalties for each Star Wars tattoo we did at the show…
You paid a royalty for each tattoo?
Right – except we didn’t have to pay anything if we tattooed a rose, say, or a piece of tribal. The interesting thing is that if we did an Indiana Jones tattoo, we still didn’t need to pay royalties.
Wait… You DIDN’T need to pay a royalty on that? Even though Lucasfilm owned the Indiana Jones franchise?
Right. We just paid a Star Wars royalty. I did find that funny. When Disney took over, we switched over to paying a flat rate for the licence no matter how many or few tattoos we did.
I’m curious about this, since there’s clearly a huge market here… Outside an event like that, there’s NO requirement for tattoo artists to license a brand?
No. When you’re working in your own studio or at a tattoo convention, you don’t need a license to tattoo any licensed franchise on someone. Many years ago, I believe Disney was involved in a court case about exactly that and it was thrown out of court as something that wasn’t feasible to enforce.
Ah! So there’s been some attempt to legislate that…
Yes, I believe so. I don’t know the exact details, but I think the intention was to make it illegal to tattoo Disney characters, and it didn’t pass. I suppose if you sold yourself as someone who specialised in tattooing a franchise, and made enough waves, you’d probably get a cease and desist order – but that would only be in using their name, not in tattooing their images.
I would’ve thought companies wanted to pursue that much more aggressively. There must be a very significant reason that they don’t follow up on it…
Yes, and I don’t actually know why it wasn’t passed or enforced. I’m assuming it’s to do with it being such a personal thing… For the customer, I mean. And I guess it’s partly because a tattoo is something that – once created – can’t be taken away or destroyed, unless with a laser. I’m pretty sure forcing someone under a brutally painful laser – I speak from experience – would be considered corporal punishment and be against human rights.
That’s a very good point!
Funny enough, though, there’s a very strong and self-policed rule in tattooing that we will not copy or steal each other’s images. Artists are publicly berated for breaking that code.
I guess that’s like a comedian stealing a joke. You could do it, but the community would disapprove very strongly!
So let me ask you this… For argument’s sake, let’s say I wanted a tattoo of a protected character on my arm… And you did that for me. Who would own the rights to the artwork?
So the question about who owns a tattoo after it’s done is an interesting one. If it’s of a protected image, it wouldn’t be owned by whoever owns the I.P.! As far as I’m concerned – no matter what the tattoo is – it’s become part of the customer’s body, so it’s exclusively owned by the wearer.
Rrrrright… Not the artist?
Well, I do know of someone who was taken to court because a tattoo they had was front and centre of an advertising campaign. The artist that did that tattoo made a claim that the image they created was a large part of the look of the advert, and they’d not had any compensation for it.
I can see how they’d argue that! That’s… That’s really tricky.
In that instance, the company the advert was for ended up settling out of court with a large payment. I personally have had a few models I’ve tattooed in the past contact me about signing their tattoos over to them to be shown in modelling campaigns. In the same vein, I’m sure if a tattoo of a licensed product was used in an advert for a different product, it would be a big legal issue.
This is one of those legal areas of branding and licensing that I knew would be an absolute quagmire! And is it the case that it could work the other way? That if you created a totally original piece of art for a tattoo, you might – in theory – also be able to license that? As a greetings card, or as another piece of art?
As far as having an image you create as a tattoo getting licensed for something, it’s definitely possible, it would need to be arranged with both the artist and the customer. There have been cases of companies paying people to wear a tattoo of a product or logo – something I personally have never been a fan of; feels pretty gross.
Great answers. Thanks, Matt. I’ve really enjoyed exploring this. And I think we’ve done well to avoid making a joke about tattooing and Tatooine. For anyone that does want to drop you a line, or look at your work, what’s the best way to do it?
Thanks Deej! To see my work, I go by @mattdifa on Instagram. And my shop is Jolie Rouge Tattoo, 364, Caledonian Road, N1 1DU. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a tattoo or a chat.
Brilliant! Thanks Matt.
Enter your details to receive Brands Untapped updates & news.