The Sign Painter's Dilemma: Is there such a thing?
July 2, 2013 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I have a question, which I think is about morals and philosophy. I'm pretty sure I can elucidate the thing I'm looking for pretty clearly and hope this doesn't turn into chatfilter. Mainly I'm wondering if formalized discussions of this exist and looking for resources to read up on it. I call it "The Sign Painter's Dilemma" but it could also be a Tattoo Artist's Dilemma...

Say you're a sign painter. A person walks in off the street and fills out your form describing what he wants on the sign. The copy is full of misspellings and terrible word usage. Is it incumbent on you to correct these with (or without!) the customer's approval? Or do you paint the hideous sign and take your money and let the customer worry about whether he looks like a dope or not?

I used to take newspaper classified advertisements over the phone and I know that customers were frequently very emotionally connected to the words they had written. Our classifieds had a certain format designed to make it easy to find whatever was being advertised, but customers would fight tooth and nail (and ignore warnings that they might not get the visibility they sought) to keep the wording they'd composed.

This link has prompted me to revisit this question. I can't believe that these were a result of a process whereby a professional counseled a client: "This is forever. I will not etch 'Sucess is a procss' into your skin without your informed consent acknowledging that half of the words are misspelled." True, the tattoo artist could have been careless, but I don't doubt that some of these were customer error through and through.

On the other hand, a professional risks alienating a paying customer by pointing out the errors in the specs of the work he is being contracted to do. An architect can claim public safety when he insists on a handrail for that balcony -- what about the sign painter who really would prefer not to use those extra apostrophe's?

Truly, truly not trying to get into chatfilter here: What are policies / responsibilities of sign painters / tattoo artists with regard to matters of correctness / aesthetic appropriateness of their work? Is there a formal way to discuss this? Is there some writing that could give me insight into this?
posted by Infinity_8 to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: On preview -- of course, the professional can use all his people skills to perform the editing -- I'm not implying that the only way to get this informed consent is with a brutal "This is wrong and I'm not going to do it."
posted by Infinity_8 at 12:11 PM on July 2, 2013

Start with "Why don't we..." I don't do anything like sign painting, but I do stuff that interfaces with a large public audience. Most of my content creators are pretty good. When they're not, I say "Why don't we..." and it's usually fine.

In the sign painter's case, the customer wants a sign that says "Get a Brain! Morans."

The sign painter says "Why don't we change 'Morans' to morons?" The customer says, "What's wrong with the way I wrote it, moran?"

The sign painter says "Moron is generally spelled with an O and not an A, but I understand that you may have problems with the letter O. I would be happy to paint it with an A with the understanding that it's not generally spelled that way."

In other words, politely suggest an alternative. If that doesn't work, remind the customer that it's generally done differently, but you'd be happy to do it their way if it's what they really want.

This doesn't provide any legal protection, but you at least raised and made them aware of the issue. If a contract is involved, put a line in that says "Advised customer of common usage of 'morons,' but customer preferred 'Morans' on sign.
posted by cnc at 12:21 PM on July 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I used to work in a tattoo shop in the midwest. The shop was owned by a biker and he had a decidedly death metal / dark fantasy style. I cannot count the number of times people who had just turned 18 came into the shop and wanted one of several cliche tattoos:

1. a rose with barbed wire on their breast
2. a panther clawing at their skin with tear marks
3. a grim reaper on the shoulder
4. a dolphin on the ankle (in Wisconsin!)

The shop owner's belief was "give them what they want, who cares if it's shit?" I preferred to steer people to the books of original work and away from the flash art.

The real art of tattoo is the interpretation of an idea or design by the artist.

In California, I have met plenty of tattoo artists that refuse to do stuff they don't like or that they are not interested in.

All that said... art is pretty subjective and I've seen some really terrible tattoos that the wearers were very proud of, and I'd say that about 65% of the time when I tried to talk someone out of something that was really horrible, they stuck to their guns and wanted it exactly the way they envisioned it.
posted by bobdow at 12:24 PM on July 2, 2013

Best answer: On an episode of "Best Ink" (a competition tv show for tattoo artists), a tattoo artist contestant made a misspelling in a tattoo, after checking it with the client, who approved the design and said the spelling was correct. (In this situation, both of them were clueless about the correct spelling). The judges made it very clear that it was the artist's responsibility to have corrected it, even if the client had approved it. The judge made it sound like correct spellings were always the artist's responsibility.
posted by jaguar at 12:25 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a question journalists face all the time. With interviews, for instance, someone may say something that you as a journalist know will bring them huge embarrassment. So, you have to decide if you use the whole quote, or truncate the quote or use a different one. The reverse is true with words they leave out. Journalists often use brackets to insert their best guess of a word that should've been there but wasn't in someone's comments. For example, " ... thirty seven floors [up] is where I saw the flash." In the sign painter's example, the best and only thing to do, I think, is to check the words and the spelling. If that's what they want, it's a done deal.
posted by CollectiveMind at 12:26 PM on July 2, 2013

My mom used to be the person who put the notices up on the grooved board sign at our school. She (a teacher, who was asked to do the board because she was low man on the totem pole) used to get in arguments all the time with the administrators about the terrible grammar, punctuation, spelling, and wording they wanted on the sign, and was always met with a bunch of push back and refusal to change.

She "solved" this by making an extra copy of the notice case key and sneaking back at night to change it to the correct version while no one was watching her. I remember her handing me extra letters and an exacto knife and saying, "here, I need you to make this look like a semicolon." (My mom is a bit of a perfectionist.)

After an entire year of going back and forth on the weekly notices, my mom eventually just gave up on trying to talk to them about it, and just did it her way and let them complain. If they wanted bad copy they could do it themselves.
posted by phunniemee at 12:26 PM on July 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

This linked image has 13 bad design mistakes.

Sometimes showing the client similar mistakes from other people can help.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 12:30 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend just got a tattoo of some WPA art that had words on it, and the tattoo artist specifically asked him to double-check that everything was spelled correctly before he transferred the outline onto my boyfriend's arm. So I'm guessing the tattoo artists who care about their work make sure things are spelled correctly.
posted by jabes at 12:45 PM on July 2, 2013

Response by poster: Guess I need an overthinking tag on this one. Thanks, y'all!
posted by Infinity_8 at 12:52 PM on July 2, 2013

i think a lot of it depends on the relationship you have with your client. i have freelance design clients who very much appreciate my going over their copy because of my journalism background. but they trust me to make changes that are appropriate, and i always let them know of any major changes. sometimes they want certain things to go back to the way they were and i do it and it's fine.

an example from just last night - i was making a newspaper advertisement for one of my long-term clients, and they wrote "walk around your neighbor!" but in this instance, you can tell they actually meant "walk around your neighborhood!" in that case, i changed it without even asking her because i know what she meant. had it been a newer client, i would have sent an email saying "just checking to see if you meant this instead!"

personally, i've never had any issue with people complaining about proper spelling or major grammatical changes. most people i've worked with are grateful.
posted by kerning at 12:55 PM on July 2, 2013

Any good artist/designer will make an effort to suggest face-saving corrections like these.

I run into this all the time, doing advertising for small businesses. The owners write their own copy and a lot of it is pretty bad. I can't tell you how many times I've had to correct the age-old there/they're/their mistake, for instance. Other times, though, it's a question of sentence structure and meaning, and you have to ask what they meant by what they wrote. I often couch it in terms of "I just want to make sure I'm reading this correctly"
posted by Thorzdad at 1:02 PM on July 2, 2013

You may find the Chi-Tonw FPP relevant here.
posted by asperity at 1:02 PM on July 2, 2013

I generally agree with the answers above, except that I don't agree that the sign painter/tattoo artist should ever correct anything without the customer's approval. I remember a story I heard one time about a dedication for a book that the printer helpfully corrected from something like "To Mo and Dad" to "To Mom and Dad", which would have been nice -- except that the author called her mom "Mo". Similarly, I feel like "Sucess is a prcess" could easily be a joke, which the tattoo artist would have ruined if they had "corrected" it.
posted by cider at 1:14 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

A professional does the job right. That means offering suggestions to the (non-expert) clients and doing his/her best not to produce error-riddled work. If the client makes a clear and informed decision to proceed anyway (preferably in writing), then it comes down to doing it their way or excusing yourself from the job. Informed consent doesn't mean that the professional has to do whatever you want; it just means the professional doesn't do something you don't want or don't understand. To illustrate, no reasonable surgeon would cut off your left foot, no matter how strongly you insist or how many waivers you sign, when your right foot is the one with the incurable infection.

For a sign painter, it's probably worth the money to paint the erroneous sign (and it's not like most sign painters sign their work). For a good tattoo artist who really cares about his work, or as you mention, especially for an architect or engineer, walking away from the job may be the only ethically acceptable answer if the client refuses to compromise.

At the end of the day, a structural engineer is legally and ethically responsible for the plans he signs, and his client's firm insistence that a supporting column be removed isn't going to change that. Some professionals feel the same way about their work in less safety-critical fields.
posted by zachlipton at 1:37 PM on July 2, 2013

Best answer: Also, I'll note that a quick search for tattoo artist refuses turns up a number of examples, including some forums of professional tattoo artists discussing this question. Apparently a number of artists refuse to do facial tattoos, and some cite not wanting to be responsible for marking someone permanently such that they may later be unable to get a job or face other consequences. There are a bunch of discussions of tattoo artist ethics you may find interesting.
posted by zachlipton at 1:44 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I call it "The Sign Painter's Dilemma" but it could also be a Tattoo Artist's Dilemma...

It's funny you mention the Tattoo Artist's Dilemma.

One of the times I was in a tattoo shop getting a tattoo, I saw someone come into the shop and ask to get a really ill advised tattoo. Like REALLY. I think it was a neck tattoo of her boyfriend's name? The tattoo artist she was talking to told her that he couldn't in good conscience do this tattoo, but that he could help her come up with something just as nice, but with less risk of regret.

I've also been the subject of the "Tattoo Artist's Dilemma". Another time I was getting a tattoo, I went in to talk to the artist about what I wanted. It turned out that my idea wasn't well suited for that part of my body, longevity, and the artist's ability to make the piece look the best it could. So we worked together to come up with something as close as possible to my original vision which looks great and should last for many years to come.

So, yeah, I dunno if maybe sign painters or classified ad people are different, but in the tattoo world an artist will definitely speak up if they're being asked to do something that's going to look like shit or that the tattoo-ee will regret.
posted by Sara C. at 1:50 PM on July 2, 2013

With bad tattoos, I think you might be underestimating the number of really bad tattoo "artists" out there. While it may not be legal, anyone can buy tattoo equipment and tattoo friends and family and anybody dumb enough to go to a dude doing tattoos in his kitchen. I knew a few guys that did this (and it's where I got my first tattoo; I was 15 and dumb) and I don't think they would check spelling or necessarily know if a word is misspelled.
posted by shmurley at 2:02 PM on July 2, 2013

I have a large text tattoo down one of my forearms. When I got it, the artist was adamant about me double checking the spelling when I wrote it out for him, when he made the outline, and immediately before he started the actual tattooing. Never once did he double check that I was okay with ending a sentence with a preposition. (I'm fine with it, and would've resisting changing it.)

I also have a small bit of Spanish language text in another tattoo. It has atypical spelling that I believe was much more acceptable years ago and that today it wouldn't really be recognized. Friends who are native Spanish speakers have pointed it out as incorrect. I have to inform them of the historical context before they concede that it's not a mistake and was done that way on purpose. Never once during the process of that tattoo was any effort made by the (different) tattoo artist to guarantee that I was positive of the spelling of the foreign language text, just that the outline matched my reference image.

I was comfortable with both situations because I entered both of them with specific intentions and had the artists' raised questions I had answers for them, and had they refused I would have been fine going elsewhere.
posted by dogwalker at 4:42 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a professional, I make sure people understand the consequences of their choices before we go ahead with anything permanent. In picture framing, this works like this:

Me: If you want to frame this item like this, it will be damaged in [variety of ways] over [approx. time span]. I suggest [alternative].

Them: OK, I don't care.

Me: Great, so long as you understand that this will [consequence], which is permanent. Please initial here and here on this order stating that you understand this.

It's not a perfect system, but it works for me. Basically, I have decided that there are specific boundaries that I will not cross, like handling some specific types of art (oversize metallic prints, for example, or anything the customer wants us to cut down) and that it's important to me that people understand the consequences of their actions because it's a part of managing everyone's expectations. The goal in doing anything custom is making sure that the customer understands what you can actually do, understands what the result will be and is on the same page, and understands that they are ultimately responsible for their own choice. Ethically you have to make sure the consent is informed, and practically, it'll save you from a lot of refunds due to dissatisfaction.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:54 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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