By JoJo Ackermann
About six months ago, three guys in their early 20s walked into the shop around opening time with the request to have a heart and the word “Mom” tattooed on their asses. Honestly, I thought they were just screwing around but after a few laughs and some more questions, I realized these dudes were serious about getting it done...
I walked over to a section of flash we had on the wall and pointed to the Sailor Jerry design that fit their description and told them, “Here ya go.” Two of the three guys were good-to-go and liked it (it was their first ones), but the third guy seemed a bit put off by it and told me that he would never get a tattoo off the wall because it wasn't original and that he wanted me to draw it for him.
So in a really nice way, I told him that I could do that, but why? Jerry’s design was already good-to-go, and really nice. He replied that his tattoos were all drawn custom for him and that he thought that getting flash was unoriginal. After glancing over at his sugar skull and various other tattoos, it was clear to me that he already had flash tattooed on him and he didn’t realize it, but I kept quiet and kept the conversation rolling. While we were talking and laughing, it came up that these guys were in the Coast Guard and I told them that getting a Sailor Jerry tattoo was going to be great for them since they are sailors and for other obvious reasons. They all got the tattoo done and away they went, out the door laughing and happy to go show everyone what they had done.
In this era of media overstimulation, how-to DVDs, know-it-alls and endless access to anything “tattoo” online, it has been made quite clear to me that the public has lost its way when it comes to getting good tattoos. Actually showing up at the tattoo shop was, and I still believe is, an essential part of the process so you can see the work, speak to the tattooer and actually get what you pay for. Since I can remember, my first time in a tattoo shop (around 1984-85, I think), there was this amazement and flash covered walls and the clients had these designs tattooed on them. It seemed pretty obvious that that was how you got tattooed. You go to the shop and get a tattoo and although it scared the shit outta me, it also rose my curiosity and drew me in.
Fast forward to today, and think about this: e-mails for quotes, people going online for a design, then shopping it place-to-place, calling on the phone with vague descriptions and wanting to know the shop “minimum.” It’s hard not to hang up or say something rude to them, but we have to feed the kids so we figure it out. It’s really just more work than necessary.
Painting flash is still a tradition that is being done by some of this era’s great tattooers, yet the public still wants to show you a Google image on their phone... WHY?! What’s the deal with this? I ask customers all the time why they don't look through the flash for ideas or the tattoo they want and most replies I get are “because someone has that already” or “it’s unoriginal.” I mean, really?! Then the Google image they show you on their phone is a picture of someone else's tattoo!
As I got close to my 10 year mark in tattooing, (1992-2003) it seemed like a lot of the tattooing I did was from flash. We always changed a few things here and there, but for the most part those designs helped me learn how to draw and compose basic tattoo iconography. For example; over time I learned how to draw and tattoo a koi fish without it looking like a chopped off penis with a human eye and sprinkles, or a dragon so that it didn't look like a barfing sock puppet, or a woman's face so she didn't look like a man, or lettering that didn't look like it was done with your foot!
Most shops that have amazing tattooers working there will most likely have amazing flash or tattoo art on the walls as well. It all goes hand-in-hand, and I am sure plenty of you out there can relate to doing this, but I remember learning with flash from Jack Rudy, Paul Jeffries, Ed Hardy and many others who are the top tattooers in the world. I am so thankful to have had these designs around me over the years to work from because they are guidelines on how to translate tattoo design on paper to skin. Those designs helped me figure out how to compose and create solid tattoos large and small.
Flash is in no way a dying form of the tattoo regiment because we see tattooers every day doing sets, one-off sheets, large designs and paintings that reflect the solid form of the traditional tattoo. Guys and gals like Erik Gillespie, Nick Colella, Uzi, Danny Reed, Aaron Coleman, Richard Stell, Greg Christian, Mary Joy, John Collins, Thomas Morgan, Katie Sellergren and Jesse Gordon are ones right off the top of my head that I watch constantly breathe new life into classic images to bring them into the present and make them ready to rock!
These past few years, I have seen so many tattooers doing flash and pushing it out there way more than it seemed 10 years ago and I find that to be super inspiring to me as a tattooer, but how can I inspire the client to relate to it as well? A good friend of mine told me that the customers will eat what you feed them. I can’t get that out of my head because it is so true when you think about it. If you are done doing Google phone tattoos you have to put it out there! I suppose the result we want to see in how the public perceives how to choose a tattoo is entirely up to the tattooers that want to correct it.
Due to the overwhelming demand on tattooing, I feel that as tattooers we have almost lost the respect to the public that we once had as the “experts” who they could rely on for advice and solid work. They all have ideas and special requests that at times we all know might or might not work out for them but when we tell them what we think, we usually hear, “Ok, let me think about it.”
It’s as if they aren't shopping for a tattoo at all, but more or less shopping for a “yes.” I think it’s best at times to let those folks know that whether it’s flash or not, that getting tattooed is not original or unique anymore at all but rather who is doing your tattoo that sets you apart and makes it special. I’m sure that when they go think about it, they will bump into some new kid with more hand, neck and face tattoos than they have years of experience to tell them “yes” and ruin their tattoo for them. We also know any of those knuckleheads can do clunky $20 dollar tattoos and that there are doofuses out there who are happy with that, but realistically those aren't my target audiences, so I strive to uphold the morals and ethics in professional tattooing that I have been taught, whether it means sacrifice or gain.
And I’d like to make mention of one more fact about getting a flash tattoo off the wall: I have done the same tattoo on lots of folks but I know that it has never been the same every time I have done it. We can do the same 10 tattoos on 10 different people and have 10 different versions. That’s how it is almost 100 percent of the time.
When people come in, they need to know that choosing a tattoo or getting an idea from the flash or books in the shop isn't something to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
IT’S TIME TO REMOVE THE LAME FROM THE GAME! AS TATTOOERS WE NEED TO UPHOLD THE EXPERTISE AND PRIDE WE HAVE IN WHAT WE DO...
*[Editor's Note: All tattoos and flash designs were made by the following from top to bottom: Zeis, Nick Colella, (Indian girl) Greg Christian, Keet d'Arms, (Skeleton gangster) Justin Larson, (Both lotus and flower tattoo and flash) Zeis, Keet d'Arms (Indian chief) Horitoshi I, Bill and Junii Salmon (Peonies) Zeis, Colella (Tiger).]
(JoJo Ackermann is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. JoJo can be found here: American Made Tattoo in Rosamond, CA.)
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