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WTF is “Flash”

Updated: May 13

The origin of the American idea of “flash” tattoos dates back to the early 20th century. Tattooing was unregulated and in many places unlawful, but in cities like New York and Richmond tattoos were still in demand (mostly amongst men in the military). Flash were pre-drawn templates and reference sheets that could be displayed, replicated, and packed up quickly. Traditionally, the designs consisted of basic shapes and a limited color palette. American traditional flash motifs are still recognized and referenced in modern tattoos and throughout pop culture.

Recently, I’ve seen a liberal use of the word “flash" outside of the tattoo community. The average person associates it with pre-drawn and custom small tattoos in general, or simply cheap tattoos. I’ve even heard people say “flash sale” because they’re used to shops doing micro tattoos at a low cost for an event. But I’ve personally never seen a shop use that verbiage. It creates a misconception that every flash tattoo is significantly discounted. When in reality, unless the artist receives free or discounted supplies, there's no real way to make up for a significant discount. In the last few years, the cost of supplies has increased exponentially making even micro tattoos average at double what they did in 2019.

Today, Flash tattoos serve multiple purposes and meanings for artists and clients. The tattoo community mostly uses the term “flash” to refer to any original pre-drawn, small-medium sized design or themed sheet of designs. A lot of artists now use flash to move their clientele and style in a certain direction. It doesn’t have to be a simple design that’s easy to reproduce. Though somewhat popular, It doesn’t have to be a special event, discounted price, or limited time offer.

Flash centered events are still extremely common. I see many artists and shops promoting flash-only days surrounding holidays, fundraisers, misc. special events during which sheets are designed with a central theme. Friday the 13th can be a tattoo flash day nationwide. Special occasions like this tend to get a lot of foot traffic, and can be treated as walk-in, call ahead, or appointment only events. There is no one right way to organize a flash event, and now-a-days they are so popular that shops frequently have to turn some clients away or stay hours past closing.

The term is fluid and will always have a different connotation from person to person. That said, I encourage everyone to look into flash designs created by their favorite local shops. Sometimes a pre-drawn piece can speak to you in the same way a custom can, or even more-so because they come straight from the creative stream of the artist.

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