We here at The Rebellion are no strangers to the occasional freelance non-tattoo job. As a matter of fact we often sell our own fine artworks and even take commission jobs somewhat regularly. As an example, I was just recently hired to freelance some tattoo-style artwork for Coors Light to use in an upcoming ad campaign. I was impressed that the people at Coors and their design firm opted to spend a few extra bucks to hire a professional tattooer to do the design work, as opposed to having a staff member try to duplicate some Sailor Jerry drawings or something. I opted to use watercolors (really liquid acrylics being used like watercolors) because the process is the closest to tattooing. In fact watercolor paints and different variations of watercolor markers or other mediums being used like watercolors have a had a long history in the tattoo shop. And that got me thinking….
It used to be that if you walked in to a tattoo shop, the walls would be covered in sheets of hand-painted tattoo designs called flash. Because there was no way to color copy the flash sheets, every tattooer would hand draw and paint every single design themselves. You could choose from hundreds of these tattoos, but they were often your only option. You may receive a pretty surly response if you asked to alter any of the designs. Also, as single-use stencils were not yet available, the tattooer had to hand make a reusable stencil for each design, and repeat the design in maybe two to five sizes, so you were also limited as to your size options.
You could choose any tattoo off of the wall, so long as the tattooer had a stencil handy. The tattooers reputation was as much dependent on his flash ability and selection as it was on his ability to execute a good tattoo. And if he was a real genius, he may be able to free-hand a design right on you, forget stenciling or drawing on the skin, just pick up the machine and go.
After the advent of the color copy machine, it became somewhat standard to buy flash sheets from either a supply company or other artists. While some artists continued to make flash at an astounding rate, it became more to sell by the set to hundreds of shops instead of as a database of their own personal tattoo designs. Most artists, especially the elite group, eventually phased out flash painting, preferring instead to design each client’s tattoo as a one-of-a-kind original. This left painting flash, in a big part, up to second-rate tattooers or artists who were not even tattooers but could make some money drawing tattoos. Some of this flash became totally standard in shops across the United States. Ask any tattooer who was in a shop during the mid-90’s how many “Cherry Creek” roses or crosses they did and you’ll likely get an answer in the millions! Or ask how many of their clients were disappointed because the David Bollt butterfly they wanted so bad couldn’t be tattooed the same size as it was on paper; 1″ x 1″. In my opinion, that is a big part of why getting a flash tattoo has such negative connotations these days. Now that we are in the age of “custom tattooing”, most serious tattoo clients would not even consider just picking a design off of the wall.
If you are composing a unique design for every customer, it is pretty time-prohibitive to make a watercolor painting to show the customers before they get tattooed. So in the 1990’s many tattooers began turning towards colored pencils to compose their clients ideas in a full color rendering. This kinda put the tradition of watercolors at risk of falling by the wayside.
We are now in a sort of “traditional tattooing” renaissance. Many tattooers, over the past decade especially, have taken it upon themselves to work toward upholding the values and techniques of the early-mid 20th century tattooer. This includes making extra-curricular artworks, which are often done using techniques that pay tribute to the watercolor flash-painting tattoo hero’s of that era. Flash has seen a bit of a resurgence as of late, but is more often bought by collectors to hang on display in homes or shops than as an actual useful database of tattoo designs.
Although I get really excited at the prospect of hand-painting a hundred pages of flash to hang on the walls of my shop, I also really enjoy the process of designing a unique composition that a tattoo client can wear and be assured that it is a one-of-a-kind accessory. I will refrain from positing whether the advent of custom tattooing is beneficial or destructive to our culture, but I will take my hat off to companies like Coors, who see the value of paying a nod to our history. Even if they just want to use it to tap into a tattoo-obsessed market to sell a few more six packs.
Well, that became quite the ramble. unintentionally, of course. Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed this ramble on a small aspect of our culture and world! I will post the entire piece of Coors artwork as soon as I verify that the company will allow me to. They may want to keep it under wraps for now. Believe me, I signed ALL of my rights away as far as that is concerned. Tee hee.