The Timeless Art of the Flash Tattoo

arm with two tattoos, one of words and the other a bracelet of leaves

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Who would have ever guessed that one day almost everyone, from the girl next door to Dame Helen Mirren, would be inked? That the likes of Kat Von D would turn a passion for tattoos into a very legit beauty empire? (Shoutout to one of the best eyeliners on the planet, Tattoo Liner, $22).

Ask a tattoo artist, and they'll tell you there's nothing trendy about the art of tattoo. Case in point: flash tattoos. We've all seen them—classic designs like anchors, skulls, dragons, nautical stars, and pin-up girls, to name a few. They have history. Keep scrolling to learn more about this timeless tattoo art.

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What Is a Flash Tattoo?

Flash tattoos are common designs, usually drawn on paper or cardboard and displayed prominently on the walls or in binders in some tattoo shops. The selection at tattoo studios can be quite mesmerizing—even if you're in there for a custom tattoo, it's always worth taking a look.

"A flash tattoo is an image of the tattoo already colored in and drawn so that you can have an understanding of what you’re getting on your skin before you get a tattoo," says Miryam Lumpini, internationally renowned tattoo artist and global creative director for BodyMark by BIC. "A lot of tattoo studios have these so that you can pick and choose an already existing design if you can’t come up with a custom design that you want to get."

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The art comes in all sizes, but they're typically displayed on 11x14-inch prints. Sometimes a design includes a separate line drawing, which is drawn on a different sheet and used so that the artist doesn't need to draw their own new outline with each tattoo.

Flash art may either have been personally drawn by the artist giving the tattoo, or may be sold by an artist to a shop. In the early days, it was usually hand-drawn locally, with shops using their own designs. Later, professional flash artists began to sell prints of their artwork at conventions and eventually via the Internet.

"Flash tattoos are very common within traditional tattoo studios but also with studios that are located in more touristy areas," Lumpini says.

Is Flash Art Cool?

With so much tattoo inspiration on social media, more and more people are interested in getting inked, and tattoos are no longer as taboo as they once were. The increasing popularity also means custom art is more in demand than ever before—an exciting thing for tattoo artists who are in it for the art.

"I personally have never worked off of flash designs even when I was an apprentice and did my first tattoos on clients. I still wanted to draw them all myself and consult with my clients to create something unique for them," Lumpini says. "I definitely prefer to do custom work. The artist in me loves to create, and working together with the client allows my creative juices to flow!"

But that doesn't mean that getting a flash tattoo is at all a faux pas. In fact, there's a timeless quality to well-designed flash art. The bold lines and often classic designs are beautiful creations that never go out of style.

Typically, flash tattoos are done in a style called American traditional, or old-school. "Flash is very popular within traditional tattoo studios where they do a lot of old-school tattoos because this style of tattooing requires specific rules in order to be placed in that category," Lumpini says. "A lot of traditional artists don't use a bigger needle than a nine and there are certain rules of what colors you should use, how you do your lines and shading. Therefore, there is a lot of flash from these traditional tattoos from back in the days, which is a reminder of these techniques and styles."

Flash vs. Custom

That being said, you should have some idea what you want before you go in, whether you're going for a custom or a flash design. Custom art may appeal to your own inner artist, and our innate desire to express ourselves. With custom work, there are no limitations on self-expression. And you walk away with a truly unique piece of art that is more than just made for you, but is also literally a part of you. Custom ink is also—generally—more expensive.

Flash, on the other hand, is great for giving people ideas when they aren't quite certain what they want. It also has the advantage of being something the artist has practiced, making it easier for them and less pricey for the customer.

Though tattoos are more mainstream than ever, Lumpini believes that the industry is still very underground. She says, "Everyone is running their own studio very differently all over the world, which I think is part of the experience."

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