Tattoos present an interesting case for contract lawyers. For many, tattoos are a way of preserving a memory. In recent years however, some people have begun to ask whether a tattoo can count as a legally binding contract.
Surprisingly, a lot of people think this is a good idea, and a legal one, too. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of clarity when it comes to the legality of tattoo contracts.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the conditions needed to make a tattoo into a legally binding contract in Virginia. Do note that this article is entirely a “what-if” scenario, and you should always go over any real contract with a legal professional first.
What is a Contract?
Very generally, a contract is a written or spoken agreement. We enter into contracts with employers and employees, in sales, with the government, and with friends and loved ones.
Oral vs. Written Contracts
There are some instances where a spoken contract is binding in Virginia. When an oral contract will do, there is no reason to pursue a written contract. For example, buying a shirt in a store technically counts as an oral contract.
There are instances, however, that legally require a written contract in order to be enforceable in Virginia courts. These instances include:
- When collecting credit, money, debts, etc. from any person on behalf of the character, conduct, credit, ability, trade, or dealings of another
- Charging anyone on a promise made at the age of 18 years or older to pay a debt contracted during infancy
- Charging a personal representative on a promise to answer any debt or damages out of his own estate
- Requiring anyone to pay for the debt, default, or misdoings of another
- Any agreement made on consideration of marriage
- Any contract for the sale of real estate, or for the lease thereof for more than a year
- All agreements or contracts for services to be performed in the sale of real estate, as defined in § 54.1-2100 or § 54.1-2101
- Any agreement that is not performed within one year
- All agreements or promises to lend money or extend credit in an aggregate amount of $25,000 or more
In addition, the Virginia Statute of Frauds requires all contracts for the sale of goods over $500 to be in writing in order for them to be enforceable.
If you want to enter into a contract concerning one of the instances listed above, you are required to put it in writing.
What Counts as Written?
Although Virginia code clearly outlines the types of agreements that require a written contract, there is no specific code stating what you need to write the contract on.
Technically, tattoos do come in the form of “writing,” so a written contract can be printed in the form of a tattoo. With that in mind, just because you are able to produce a written contract doesn’t immediately make it binding. The tattoo contract still must follow all the regulations surrounding a normal contract.
Reading the Small Print
One example of these regulations appears in the size of the words in the tattoo. According to the Virginia code, a contract must be “clearly and plainly printed or written.” Further, regardless of how the contract appears, it must be in at least 10 point font.
Many contracts and legal documents also require the signature and seal of a notary public. A notary public is a person commissioned to perform official acts under the title. In essence, they make the document “official.”
Can a Notary Public Notarize a Tattoo?
There is a lot of copying, signing, and sealing that goes into properly notarizing a document. There are fairly straightforward ways to make certifiable copies of paper documents. However, there is really no way to make an exact copy of a contract that appears on the skin as a tattoo. This might present a problem in making a “legally binding” tattoo.
Notarizing also often requires witnesses, seals, and signatures. A tattoo shop might not be a reputable place to establish all the conditions necessary to properly notarize a document. Further, the notary public would have to sign the “contract” themselves, which would require them to add their own signature in tattoo. Finding a notary public who can also do legible tattoo work might present another hurdle in this process.
Many contracts do not require notarization however. In these cases, the aspects of notarization that might blur the legality of contracts or agreements are moot.
What Counts as a Document?
Virginia code defines a document as any information that is inscribed on a “tangible medium” which includes any writing or written instrument or on an electronic record. The most important part here is that the document must be a “writing” or made on a “written instrument.”
Virginia has a history of questionable documents being made official. In Dinwiddie County for example, a man wrote a joke contract on the back of a bar check to sell his farm. While he considered it as a joke, the other man took it as a valid contract of sale. When the buyer tried to enforce the contract, the jokester refused to transfer his property. The Virginia Supreme Court however decided that this joke counted as an enforceable contract and sided with the buyer.
For this reason, a court could consider a tattoo “document” an enforceable contract. However, it still needs to meet all other contractual requirements.
What is a Signature?
As mentioned earlier with notary publics, proper signatures are an important part of any official document. No matter how you make your contract, your written agreement will require signatures. However, a tattoo of a signature might not count as an actual signature under the law.
If an autograph is traced for example, it is not an authentic signature. If a tattoo artist simply traces your signature, it would count as a replica. This replica would not count as a true signature and would invalidate the document.
However, if all parties sign the “document” with a tattoo gun (including the person being tattooed, if applicable), then the “document” would most likely hold weight in court.
Other Things to Consider
As a final note, when people think of tattoo contracts, they normally land on “do not resuscitate” tattoos. Regardless of the possible loopholes explored in this article, healthcare providers often do not recognize DNR tattoos. In most medical situations, a document written with pen and paper is still probably a better idea.
Void as Against Public Policy
A court can also void contract terms, or even the whole contract, if it includes things that are illegal or against public policy. It is entirely possible that a contract written on the “medium” of human skin would be deemed to be against public policy and therefore voided by a court.
The Virginia code lacks clarity when it comes to the medium and requirements of a written contract or agreement. Tattoos can sometimes walk the edge between official and unenforceable.
So, does a tattoo count as a legally binding contract? The answer is probably “yes.” However, there are many hurdles to jump over before the tattoo can be seen as legally binding. While tattoo contracts are an interesting idea, in practice they would very hard to create, and a court might invalidate it anyway.
Contracts can be a complicated aspect of the law, even under the best of circumstances. If you’re in need of a contract, we’d still recommend hiring an experienced attorney before you decide to whip out a tattoo gun and start signing your arm.