Is a tattoo design an original work of art that should not be copied? That has been the subject of an ongoing spat between a tattoo artist here and one in Kuala Lumpur, with lawyers weighing in to say it might well be a question of copyright.
It was in June last year that teacher Shan Ho, 25, got Singapore tattooist Moon Pang to put an original design of a lacy black bow on her back.
All was fine until a few weeks ago when she discovered an exact copy of her tattoo on the photo-sharing app Instagram. The photo was credited to Kinki Ryusaki, the pseudonym of Kuala Lumpur-based artist Wong Wei Yin.
Ms Ho was flattered at first, but later felt indignant. She told Mr Pang about the copy, and he tracked down a photo of his design on Ms Wong's Facebook page. Entitled "Tattoo by Kinki Ryusaki", it had garnered over 26,000 "likes".
Mr Pang, 37, who uploads his work onto Instagram, Facebook and his own website, confronted Ms Wong via Facebook, but his comments were deleted.
Reached for comment, Ms Wong insisted she had done no wrong. She claimed she worked off a picture provided by her client, modifying the design "a little".
"If you want to talk about copying, then everybody is copying each other," said the 26-year-old, pointing out that other versions of the lace bow tattoo have been uploaded onto the Internet recently.
"The artist should be proud of it instead of making such a big fuss," she added.
But intellectual property experts say tattoo art might well be covered by copyright laws.
An original work has copyright protection from the moment it is created in a tangible form, whether it is a sketch or a tattoo, and the original artist has the exclusive right to adapt or reproduce it.
"If you recreate the design, even in another medium, it's still infringement," said lawyer Jonathan Kok, a partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.
And because both Singapore and Malaysia are signatories to international copyright agreements such as the Berne Convention, a Malaysian court would recognise the infringement of a Singaporean's work and allow him to take action there, said Mr Kok.
Tattooists who upload their designs online said that while copying is fairly rampant, they try to dissuade clients who want a design they have seen elsewhere.
"That's my standard policy and principle: To never ever repeat or copy any single design," said Mr Elson Yeo, 34, owner of Think Tattoo at Far East Plaza.
Others like Exotic Tattoos' senior artist Victor Ang, however, shrugged off the copycats, saying: "If you want to post something online, these are the consequences."
Mr Pang, who runs Moonstruck Tattoo in Jalan Besar, says the spat with Ms Wong could have been avoided if she had only asked for his permission.
"We really just want to protect our rights and our customers' rights," he said.