TDNCLA: Can I Sue for Giving Me the Wrong Tattoo?

March 8, 2013


I am a criminal defense attorney for the poor and oppressed and am very proud of what I do, fighting the proverbial “man,” fixing a broken system, and making sure that anyone who has ever been part of perpetrating a shakedown gets a fair shake. Advertising my services has become very, very expensive, even cost prohibitive, so I decided to tattoo my occupation on my forehead. Unfortunately tattoos don’t come with a spell check feature, so what was meant to say:


Actually says, on my forehead, for the world to see:


Now as much as I am a champion of people’s nether-regions, I’m frankly afraid I may end up on some predator watch list.  Can I sue my tattoo artist for the trauma and reputational harm coming my way?

The Accidental Pubic Defender


Dear TABD,

First off, YIKES.  Please write me separately an update on how this tattoo snafoo has affected your love life.  It’s possible that what you’ve lost in future clients you have won back in terms of future dates.  But that’s an aside.

Tatoos, while the subject of many youthful indiscretions, are also the subject of many lawsuits.  You may have heard the one about the tattoo artist who created, inked, and copyrighted the tattoo Mike Tyson has on his face.  He sued the makers of The Hangover Part II for using the Tattoo without his permission.  I would show you the tattoo via a hyperlink, but frankly I’m afraid to get sued.  Rent ain’t cheap.  The case settled, so we may never know how much the “tattooing Ed Helm’s face” gag cost the producers, but safe to say since the Hangover Part II grossed nearly $600 million worldwide, it was probably well worth it.

You will not be surprised to learn that many of our great nation’s tattoo artists suffer from poor spelling.  For example, in 2007, an auto mechanic filed a lawsuit against a tattoo artist for inking him with “Chi-tonw” instead of the Chicago moniker “Chi-town.”  The lawsuit alleged negligence (“what, I can’t be texting and tattooing at the same time?”), fraud (“I got my tattoo degree from Harvard!”) and emotional damage (“The tattoo of the Little Engine That Could is a daily reminder that I Can’t”).  Wouldn’t you know it, the Chicago community rallied behind the tattoo artist, and his business swelled with individuals wanting to get a “Chi-Tonw” tattoo, misspelled by design.  And all the original victim of the Chi-Tonw misbranding got was 15 seconds of fame and a corrected tattoo.  As you might often find yourself asking jurors, where’s the justice?!

Unfortunately TABD, you probably don’t have much of a claim.  That’s because any tattoo parlor worth its ink probably has a system in place to make sure that you have reviewed and agreed to the exact lettering that will go on your body.  For you to win a negligence claim, you would basically have to show that there was 1) a duty owed to you, 2) which was breached, 3) which caused 4) you some damage.  Some of these are easy to meet.  You can probably show the damage (like if, in fact, you do end up on a predator watch list).  And you can probably show the causation (it’s fairly clear that you did not tattoo yourself, unless you have superhuman pain tolerance, in which case you should reconsider your job as a public defender and maybe just straight up become Batman).  But duty and breach will be pretty tricky, because odds are your tattoo “artiste” showed you the stencil of the tattoo and you approved it.  In fact, you probably had to say “yes, I love it” 100 times before you were branded Mr. Pubic for life.  You probably even signed a release that said that the tattoo shop was not responsible for the meaning of spelling of the tattoo.

You might have a better chance with images, because the way they appear on your skin may very well be different from what you agreed to.  Take a look at this gem.  And this one.  But I suspect you can’t fault the tattoo artist if your body just isn’t a great canvas.  Your tattoo artist probably isn’t legally responsible if your back fat makes your cross look like a vertical line.

But here’s the good news: it’s possible that if you get fired from your employment for having a tattoo, you could sue your employer!  (Bet you wish you were working for big Mr. Money Bags now don’t ya’!)  I mean, more often than not, you will probably lose the case because courts tend to uphold dress codes and some displays of ink are simply not dress-code friendly (consider, will you, the middle finger).  But if you can show that there’s a religious element to your tattoo-of-choice, you may show that your employer violated your religious freedom in terminating you.  Thing is, and I’m no expert, I don’t know of (m)any religions that preach the gospel of pubic defense.  But really, I would like to be wrong on this one.

And here’s what may be a real moment of karma for you— law enforcement generally catalogs the tattoos of individuals who have been processed by the criminal justice system.  This makes sense, since you may not remember the height, weight or hair color of your robber, but you sure can remember that he had a tattoo of the Tazmanian Devil riding a unicorn.  So you really ought to stay out of trouble, or you’ll basically never get away with anything ever again ever at all.  It’s a good thing you know a lot of defense attorneys, but sure is a shame you’re not beloved by the prosecutors’ offices.

I guess my best, non-legal, advice to you is, maybe next time stick to Henna?  Or those sticker tattoos you can get in an arcade if you are ever allowed to be near  children again.

Next week’s column, “T-9 Autocorrect Mistakes: Your Legal Rights when Your Phone Leads to a Break Up.”


Luci Lawless