What is copyright?
Copyright is the legal right that artists have to determine how their works are used or reproduced.
There are two aspect to copyright;
Firstly, it protects the artist's right against piracy or illicit use.
Secondly, it provides the incentive for artists to create.
Copyright provides additional income for artists derived from the reproduction, adaptation, distribution, performance and display of their own work.
When does copyright apply to a work of art?
As soon as an artist creates a work of art, it is protected by copyright. Artists (or their agents) then have the right to determine how and when a work can be reproduced. Although copyright laws vary from country to country, generally the duration of copyright is 70-75 years after the death of the artist. After this time, the work is no longer under copyright and can be reproduced without additional clearance or fees. Any artwork created by a living artist or an artist deceased fewer than 70 years may be subject to copyright. As such, the artist or their representative must be contacted for copyright clearance and they are entitled to royalties.
From the information above you can see that copyright does indeed apply to tattoos.
If an artist designed a tattoo then the copyright remains with the artist unless he/she expressly passed the copyright on, therefore even if you get a unique tattoo design inked on to your body the copyright for the artwork remains with the designer/artist.
If you see an existing tattoo image that you like and decide to use it, even altering it slightly, means that you are in breach of the original artists copyright. It is therefore always advisable to contact the artist and ask permission, often this will be seen as flattery and would not cause a problem, but check first!
If you are choosing an image from flash sheets in a tattoo studio "normally" that studio would have bought the tattoo flash sheets with the consent of the original artist, however if that studio did not purchase the flash from the original source or a registered agent - you could still be breaching the copyright law.
Many people decide to show images of their tattoos either online or in magazines, these tattoos could be very personal and it would be wrong to use them for anything other than inspiration, copying them could very well offend the original artist who designed it.