Courtesy of Tattoo Archive: Originally tattooists were required to have enough artistic ability to draw the desired design onto the skin before tattooing. With the advent of wooden, paper and or plastic stencils, the tattoo business opened up to a larger group of craftsmen; who with the aid of the stencil could get the design transfer to the skin and then apply their skills to outlining and shading that design. Even tattooists with drawing skills like the ease of transfer that stencils offered…
In professional tattooing early stencils were made of paper with the design drawn using a hectograph pencil. This design could be transferred to the skin with the aid water or green soap. Paper stencils were fragile and generally would be used only once. They were often made just before the tattoo was done. Stencils for popular designs were often made up in advance, as we have seen in old-time tattooists’ collections of multi-paper stencils. This transfer process may have come from the sign painting or embroidery business.
Unknowingly Alexander Parkes brought the tattoo world plastic — actually celluloid stencils. His 1856 patent was the first thermoplastic patent issued and it opened the floodgates for many more plastics to be invented. Parkes’ patent called for a combination of cellulose and alcoholized camphor that once heated, could be molded and retained its shape when cooled.
It is unknown what tattooist came up with the idea of scratching a design onto a thin sheet of this celluloid, sprinkling charcoal into the etch and with a thin coast of Vaseline on the skin, the stencil would then be placed onto the skin in a rolling fashion. A charcoal design would then be transferred to the skin. As you can well imagine, this design was ver y fragile: charcoal floating on a thin layer of Vaseline! As awkward to use as the plastic stencils were, they became very popular and there was hardly a tattoo shop in the world without envelopes full of them.
Tattooists liked the idea of making the stencil once and then using it for years after. For the collectors these plastic stencils have created a library of classic design that will sur vive for decades to come.
Plastic stencils are often marked with a cryptic code of letters, numbers, and the like. Each sheet of flash found on shop walls had some form of identification; letters or numbers seemed to be the most popular. Stencils for each design were stored in filing cabinets in envelopes with the matching number or letter corresponding to the sheet on the wall. This system made it much easier to find the desired stencil when needed.
Ironically in the last few years the plastic stencil has fallen out of favor with working tattooist. As is often the case, history has repeated itself. The paper stencil is back with what is considered by many a labor-saving device — the stencil maker. The stencil maker used to be the apprentice but today this copying device sets near the work area and in the good times, gets a lot of use. An interesting sidelight to plastic stencils is the way tattooist used them to exchange designs with other tattooist. A rub can be done of the stencil by placing a piece of tracing paper over the stencil and rubbing a pencil over it, the outline would be transferred to the paper. These rubs show up in many tattooist collections.
This installment of For the Record was featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine issue #31.