People have been marking their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. Tattoos are a meaningful—and permanent—form of self-expression. When done well, a tattoo is a work of art. But unsafe tattoo practices and contaminated ink can cause infections. And some tattoos don't turn out exactly how you planned—have you seen the picture of the guy with a "No Regerts" tattoo on his forearm?
So, what are your options if your tattoo makes you sick? Can you sue a tattoo artist for making a mistake?
Before you get inked, here's what you need to know:
You can hold a tattoo artist and shop legally responsible for a botched tattoo if you can show that their negligence (carelessness) caused you harm.
To prove negligence in a personal injury claim or lawsuit, you have to show that the tattoo artist and shop owed you a duty of care. You (the "plaintiff") will then have to show exactly how the artist and shop (the "defendants") failed to meet that duty—in other words, how they violated ("breached") their duty of care. Once you establish a breach, the last step in proving negligence is to show that you suffered real harm ("damages") as a result of that breach.
"Duty of care" (sometimes called "standard of care") is a legal term for how careful a person has to be to avoid harming another person. Professionals and businesses owe their clients a duty of care. If a tattoo artist or shop falls short of the standard of care in the tattoo industry, and you're harmed as a result, the artist and shop can be legally responsible (liable) for your tattoo-related injuries.
At a minimum, the standard of care in the tattoo industry requires artists and shops to:
A tattoo is basically a puncture wound filled with ink. Sometimes tattoos go bad. Examples of tattoo-related illnesses and injuries include:
Tattoo artists and shops can be liable for tattoo illnesses and injuries, but liability isn't absolute. Some problems, like infections, are known risks associated with tattoos. You likely signed a waiver giving up your right to sue over known tattoo risks and complications as soon as you stepped into the shop. (See below for more on waivers and other potential defenses to tattoo-related lawsuits.)
But just as liability isn't absolute, waivers aren't absolute either. A tattoo parlor can't get away with giving you an infection from a dirty needle just because you signed a waiver. Waivers typically protect an artist and shop from ordinary negligence, not gross negligence. For example, if your tattoo gets infected because of an unknown, pre-existing condition, you probably can't sue if you signed a waiver. But if your tattoo gets infected because the artist is reusing needles and failing to properly sterilize equipment, you might have a valid claim.
If you decide to pursue a legal claim against the tattoo shop and the artist who inked you, don't be surprised if they argue that your skin infection or other health issue was caused by something else, or that you didn't do everything you were instructed to do in terms of after-care.
And if it turns out that you're partially responsible for your tattoo getting infected because you failed to follow after-care instructions or contributed to some other problem associated with the tattoo, the amount of compensation you can receive will be affected. (Learn more about contributory and comparative negligence below.)
The internet is littered with pictures of botched tattoos—misspellings, misquotes, unrecognizable portraits. What can you do if you're the person with the bad tattoo?
You can sue a tattoo artist and shop for bad work, but "bad" is subjective. What looks bad to you, might not look bad to other people. If the tattoo artist executed the tattoo you agreed upon, you can't sue just because you don't like how it turned out. But, if you provided the artist with a picture of a meaningful quote or symbol and the artist got it wrong, you might have a claim.
Tattoo artists and shops are likely to raise a number of defenses in response to your negligence claim.
When you sign a waiver (sometimes called a consent or release form) you are releasing the artist and shop from legal responsibility if something goes wrong. Similar to medical release or consent forms, courts will typically enforce tattoo waivers as long as:
But no legal form can entirely shield artists and shops from liability. A waiver may protect an artist from lawsuits over typical illnesses associated with tattoos, but will not protect an artist who spreads blood-borne diseases with reused needles.
Contributory and comparative negligence are legal defenses that defendants can raise when you're partially to blame for your botched tattoo. Rules vary from state to state.
In states that follow a contributory negligence rule, you can't sue if you share any amount of blame for your bad outcome, even 1%.
In states that follow a comparative negligence rule, you can sue if you share fault, but your damage award will be reduced by your degree of fault. For example, say a jury finds you 25% at fault for your skin infection and the tattoo artist 75% at fault. If your total damages add up to $10,000, you'll receive $7,500 ($10,000 reduced by 25%.)
Check out the law in your state in this chart.
Even if you haven't signed a waiver (an express assumption of risk), a tattoo artist or shop might raise an implied assumption of risk defense and argue that even though no agreement was made, you knew that there were risks associated with getting a tattoo and you chose to get one anyway. Whether a judge or jury buys this defense will depend on the specific circumstances of your case.
In addition to a negligence claim, you may also have a claim against the tattoo parlor for breach of contract. You likely have a written contract with the tattoo artist and shop. If the artist fails to live up to the agreement, you might be able to file a lawsuit.
The problem with a breach of contract claim is that the amount of damages you're allowed to receive is probably limited to the amount you would have to spend to fix the tattoo or have it removed. If you can't prove negligence, or the tattoo parlor has a valid defense, a breach of contract claim may be your only option for getting at least some money for the botched tattoo.
If you've been harmed in some way because of your tattoo, consider talking to your tattoo artist first. Many artists will offer some kind of fix, cover-up, or compensation. Most tattoo artists are ethical professionals who want their clients to be satisfied with their work.
If you don't get the response you want, talk to the owner of the shop where the artist works. The owner might have the ability to offer you more than the individual artist and might be motivated to make things right to avoid an expensive lawsuit.
Get a copy of whatever paperwork you signed. If you have questions about whether you can sue the artist and shop, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you get the best outcome possible in your case.
Learn more about hiring a personal injury lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.