Tattoo error can spell trouble for artist


Dear John,

Last month, I got a tattoo on the back of my neck. I wanted, “Sleep When You’re Dead.” but the artist put, “Sleep When Your Dead.”

I am not happy. I know what I told the guy to put, but he misspelled the word. Because it is on the back of my neck, I could not see it before he applied it. Can I sue?


Tattoo Matthew

Dear Tattoo,

Your situation is not uncommon. A quick search on the Internet provided me with many examples of misspellings on tattoos. Figuring out who is responsible for the consequences of those errors took a little longer.

For me, I think about your situation and wonder about the role of government in our society. For many years, we were a nation without regulations. The common citizen had to use his own grit and determination to protect himself from charlatans and hucksters. Travelling salesmen were free to sell snake-oil to whoever would buy it, regardless of its efficacy or potential harm. These times are gone.

We now live in a diverse economy with an increasing array of consumer protections. This was brought about for many reasons, largely because of industrialization and the increasing distance between manufacturer and end user. An injured consumer in one location would have a difficult time suing for damage caused by a party several states away.

Part of the consumer protection regulations implemented includes the requirement that certain service providers obtain business licenses.

Tattoo artists are required by law to be licensed. I looked at the requirements for licensure. Interestingly, it mainly consists of paying a fee and showing proof of insurance; I was unable to locate any requirement of skill or training.

When a business has insurance for something, it is a good indicator that they can be found liable for that action. When I contacted an insurance broker who sells tattoo industry insurance, I was told that misspellings were insured, generally. Recovery can include laser removal and the cost to cover over the error.

While I don’t know whether your tattoo artist is properly licensed, or whether he or she had procedures in place to double check before applying the tattoo, I think it would be a good idea to talk to the artist soon to see if you can reach a compromise. I would think that this is a good thing to do before making an insurance claim.

If that does not work, then I think you might have a case for recovering damages of some sort.

Your protection came about through expansion of governmental oversight and a policy of consumer protection. These days, there is a huge debate about the role of government in our lives. Finding a balance between laissez-faire market capitalism and a nanny state is tough.

Given your situation, I think your next tattoo might read, “I love big goverment”.



John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only. Information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at


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