Guen Douglas: Flash or Not to Flash?

By Guen Douglas
The other day I posted a question on facebook asking about flash art. I’ve wanted to start compiling a glossary of tattoo terms for clients, but after Googling “flash art” and reading the Wikis and info on the subject I thought to ask my peers what they thought. I found most of the information contradicting and in my opinion, inaccurate… 

Angelique (Houtkamp) has been reorganizing a wall in the shop (Salon Serpent, Amsterdam) for flash. Job (Dequay) and herself have been busy painting their own (I’m on it I swear, ha-ha) and she has a great collection of beautiful flash from friends and of course lots of the classics. A few months ago the shop started doing “Walk-in Saturdays” where you can walk in and get a pre-drawn one-off design or choose from the shop’s collection of flash. We all have waiting lists and this one day a week is an opportunity for clients to jump the queue and for all three of us to draw things up that we’re keen to tattoo, with custom requests having to still make appointments.


With flash on the brain Angelique and I have been having an ongoing discussion about the direction that custom shops are taking and the place flash will have in these shops. I wanted to know what people, specifically tattooers, thought about pilfering flash art from the Internet. I follow some very talented and prolific tattooers and painters on my social media and my feed is always full of brilliant flash. I wondered if the average tattooer felt the same as me or if they thought it was okay that tattooer’s hard work was getting ripped without a penny sent their way.

I was under the impression that buying flash entitled you the right to tattoo it and that if you didn’t own it you shouldn’t tattoo it. The exception might naturally be classic designs that would now be considered to have entered the realm of public domain. What both Angelique and I were shocked to see is that a great number of tattooers thought it bad practice to copy flash as is! Another tattooer wrote to me to tell of an experience seeing an older tattooer tattoo a piece of flash as is, that left them with less respect for this tattooer. I wonder whether the rise of the custom shop, the idea of unique tattoos for all, and that many new tattooers are being taught in custom shops has warped the idea of flash?


I started tattooing at a street shop. We had tons of books and all the walls were covered in laminated flash sheets. Not the stuff the average tattooer paints and thinks is cool but the bread and butter of most street shop tattooers (especially at that time), kanji, tribal armbands, skulls, flowers… Impossibly thin lined Cherry Creek flash and the ever popular in Canada, Jeff Bartel flash. We did have a few “cool” sheets, some traditional classics and a few new school sheets from talented locals (yeah, Craig Driscoll your Prismacolor flash from the 90s).


I learned to tattoo tracing and tattooing these designs. I wouldn’t be half as good at lining if is weren’t for that Cherry Creek stuff, and tattooing flash taught me to be versatile, and helped me find my niche. The flash at the shop I worked with was all bought and paid for. That’s what shops did back then. Having the best flash meant you would be busier than the shop down the street, because you had wider selection for people to choose from. Tattooers have always done custom work, but suddenly (around the time I got into tattooing) the custom tattoo started to out-cool the off-the-wall stuff, you could barely give away flash sets. No one wanted them.


The last few years the love affair with traditional tattooing has been rekindled and it has brought with it the lost art of tattoo flash. Now everyone and their death-metal cat is re-painting classics. The original material is however the question. It’s all fine and good to hone your skills re-painting the classics, but don’t we need to create our own legacy? Our own new classics? To do that I feel like flash has to return the way it was originally intended… Popular designs that were to be purchased and then tattooed! Over and over and over again. Not by plagiarizing and profiting from other tattooer’s hard work, but by supporting the mavericks among us. I’ve been noticing a few tattooers saying, “I’ll tattoo anything I want as long as I get paid.”


I understand that with the recession some parts of the world are hit greater than others and that some have to do what they can to support themselves and their families. However, keep in mind we have to be careful not to set precedents in hard times we can’t handle after the economy returns to normal. Most sheets of flash pay for themselves the minute you do one design from it. If a client brings you something that’s not bought and paid for, draw your own version! Imagine that? We are artists right? If you can’t afford to buy flash, start painting and trading. Most tattooers love to trade art. Trading is also a huge part of our history.


Tattooing has gone through many phases and versatility is what keeps most tattooers working and earning. Not all tattooers only tattoo the cool stuff you see them posting online. Learning different styles of tattooing (especially through flash) is one of the many ways successful tattooers stay busy over the years. I worry that with so many young/new tattooers learning in custom-only shops that they miss out on learning skills they may desperately need in the future to keep ahead of the crowd. We never know where tattooing will take us next.


Let’s support each other instead of having this “everyone does it attitude” towards plagiarizing each other’s work. Buying and painting flash is like voting. Your voice in what legacy and new classics this generation of tattooers leaves for the next. I feel like tattooing has always had a similar ethos to punk rock. Respect. Respect for yourself, your craft, your clients and your community. I feel like if you follow that one thing you’ll do okay no matter the type of shop you work in.

PS: I’m sure a heated debate will ensue. Everyone seems to haven varying ideas on this topic. Keep in mind, if we as tattooers can’t agree on what even “flash” is, how are we to educate our clients?


Next topic for discussion: Flash Art vs Just Plain Old Art. If a tattooer has painted something, is it automatically considered flash? I don’t think so, but I see that many tattooers do. Your thoughts?

(Guen is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine, and can be found at Salon Serpent in Amsterdam, Netherlands.)

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4 thoughts on “Guen Douglas: Flash or Not to Flash?

  1. You most likely won’t like this…So kiss my ass…
    So how many of these “Custom only” tattoo artists even know about the industry? (Some do yes).. Flash is the bedrock of tattooing. If it were not for the standard designs that Grand-dad and Dad got in the military, or Uncle, Brother fresh out of jail, many people would not have been exposed to tattooing. Those of us that got tattooed when it was not part of the mainstream got tattooed for the purpose of being excluded from society. Now all these preppy bastards are crying about how someone took their design. Simple crybaby lawsuit shit. Figures that would happen when you let the mainstream sissies into your world. People are trying to corner the market on art that started thousands of years ago. Get over yourselves you pompous windbags! Stop trying to make tattooing fine art (even though there is some fine art tattoos out there). You buy flash, you tattoo that flash. You copy it you get beat up. I agree that a custom piece should be a custom piece and not stolen, but now explain what custom is…yeah right… For anyone that has tattooed prior to all these crap shows on TV that almost killed this industry, you know that flash art was what you used. Custom tattoos are not what the majority of people get anyway. As a matter of fact most of your everyday middle-class and lower-class people cannot afford the high end custom stuff anyway. We have a wide variety of clients some that pay for custom work and a majority that pay for flash tattoos. We enjoy them both and we know which side our bread is buttered on.

  2. great article~! i too started out & learned my chops by tattooing all kinds of flash & while now after many years of tattooing i just draw tattoos up fresh for folks i still have love & respect for the classic designs & traditional subjects that make such sense as tattoos… you have articulated very nicely what i suspect alot of tattooers today have been mulling over & debating with fellow artists… i have quite a collection of flash as a matter of fact, a collection that i never use~! which is kind of funny i guess… custom to me means i draw it from an idea but it’s still a tattoo so i think it’s always fair to draw inspiration from those classic designs we all learned from- even if our style strays far away from traditional style… i love flash~! but i never use it anymore…

  3. Flash=tattoo design sheets purchased for the shop to hang on the walls, for clients to pick a design from.
    If you are tracing flash sheets from a tattooer’s social media profile, and you post it, and someone sees it and is less than pleased at your attempt at flattery, don’t be too surprised. Buy the sheets, paint your own and trade with other tattooers, or use more “public domain” type flash. Better yet, repaint those classics. Then, go ahead and tattoo the shit out of it!
    At the very LEAST, if you aren’t sure if you are crossing one of these blurry lines, EMAIL the tattooer and ASK FIRST!
    Most of us have varying degrees of ego size and are happy to be given the courtesy of asking permission first. It’s more respectful than stealing the design, tattooing it, and then sending us pictures after the fact. Or posting the pictures on your hamstagram/fartbook, and getting called out for biting.
    We have all made mistakes, and we have all learned the proper ethics in different ways, sometimes by doing it wrong and being corrected.
    Even if you unintentionally steal in the name of adoration or inspiration, be humble when you’re called on it, and be grateful someone gave a shit enough to clue you in. Then get painting and trading!

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