The Thing That Shouldn’t Be

You know what the problem with flash? tattoos is? They exist.
They are cheap, unpretentious, mediocre — to say the least — and what’s more worrying, they are (still) popular…

Nearly 90% of the people who come to me for cover-ups1 or touch-ups2 have flash tattoos.
More than half of the e-mails I get from other tattooists or tattoo enthusiasts are requests for flash sheet catalogs.

So what’s wrong with flash tattoos?

Well, for starters, they are anything but original.
Flash tattoos are based on ready-made, one-per-hour designs drawn by others and sold in hundreds — or even thousands — of copies, worldwide. Meaning it’s very likely that somewhere, someone else wears the exact same tattoo, most likely done in the exact same manner (flash “tattooists” tend to replicate the initial designs ad literam) and, worst case scenario, of the exact same size and on the exact same area of the body.
They have nothing to do with art, inspiration, creativity or skill; they are reducing the ritual of tattooing to literally tracing, with the needle, a pattern that had been created by someone else, for somebody else, an insipid act that requires nothing more than getting used to follow a line with the tip of a pencil…
They are denying the clients’ longing for originality and uniqueness, which are two of the most important qualities a tattoo design should have.

Then, they are most likely to be low-quality, poorly executed, badly-needing-to-be-covered-up tattoos.
Because, let’s face it, if one who calls hirself a “tattooist” isn’t able to draw hir own designs and needs to rely on copying from flash sheets, it surely isn’t able to ink them properly either.
Tattoos are drawings, only not on a white, neat piece of paper stretched on a flat, rigid board, but on living, moving, bleeding, elastic skin. And if there’s lack of skill to draw on paper, well, let’s just say that doing it on the skin is 10+ times harder… it should be obvious that tattooing skills are rooted in the drawing skills and lacking the latter is definitely affecting — for the worse — the former.

Speaking of lack of uniqueness, flash tattoos lack one other important thing: meaning. They have no meaning to you, the client, because they haven’t been created for you — or for anyone else in particular, for that matter — and do not represent your feelings, message or reason regarding the respective tattoo.
Every tattoo should be created only based on your ideas and views, shaped especially for the area of the body where you want to have it and in balance (or should I say “dynamism”) with the rest of your tattoos, piercings, scars or whatever else you got in its vicinity. And every tattoo should have a meaning — not its intrinsic meaning of “skull” or “dragon”, for example, but its meaning — to you, tightly related to your experience, character or desire to express yourself.
How personal can it be when it’s only traced over a drawing copied from a stranger’s book?!

To sum it up — and emphasize it once more:

  • Flash tattoos are neither original nor unique. There is a 100% chance that someone else already has — or will have, in the future — the exact same tattoo, because flash tattoos are copied from catalogs sold in great numbers all over the world.
  • Flash tattoos are, most of the time, poorly executed and very likely to create frustration and remorse later on, because they are done by so called “tattooists” that do not have the necessary skills to create a quality artwork.
  • Flash tattoos have no meaning. They do not represent you and they are not, in any way, able to express your feelings, simply because they haven’t been created for you. On top of that, they will most likely look bad (unbalanced) on you, because it is almost impossible to have a ready-made design properly fit on the part of the body you want it done.

It is a shame — and a great source of anger (pointed towards the aforementioned “tattooist” wannabes) to me – that many people, nowadays, agree to entrust their bodies, bear hours of pain and — not to forget — pay large sums of money for mediocre, insipid tattoos, only to end up hating them and, most of the times, looking to have them covered up or even worse, removed…

A big part of the fault lies in the — let’s call it — “industry” and I’m talking about the tattoo suppliers who sell flash sheet catalogs and the tattooists who buy that shit and use it to make easy money, at the expense of our clients’ frustration and, let’s be honest, sometimes naiveté.
Can’t blame the suppliers for doing it, commerce is commerce and it has always been in direct antagonism with the art.
But I can — and I do — blame the tattooists who do it. I blame them for being mediocre and unscrupulous and I blame them — however corny this might sound — for doing a job they have no inclination, skills or talent for…

But it’s not only them, it’s also that which matters most. The clients.
The client has the fault of not requesting original work, for not walking out whenever their requests are met with “choose one from this catalog” answers, for not saying no to these worthless designs.
Which says that the fault is actually ours, the tattooists’, for not educating and for not sharing enough of our knowledge with our clients, for not making a stand when we have to.

I am going to try to make up for this fault of mine and hopefully, it will work.
For you out there, who aren’t in direct contact with me and will probably never come over to have me work for you, the best I can do is tell you the truth, give you examples and advices. And ask you to never take this sort of things lightly, to think about it thoroughly and — because it’s only fair — to let your friends know too, help them out when their time comes :)

So, my first advice to you is don’t get flash tattoos!
If you see flash sheets on the walls or in catalogs on the tables in the waiting room, if the tattoist tells you to pick one from a stash pulled from a drawer, if the tattooist doesn’t draw your design free hand right in front of you but instead copies it on a piece of transparent tracing paper from from a (note)book, excuse yourself and go look for another shop!

If you’re a “tattooist” using flash extensively and – most likely – feel ofended by all this because, obviously, you think that I’m damaging your business by spreading this message, well, what can I say, I am trying to damage your so-called business; in fact, I am trying to damage it so badly you will be forced to close down the shop and go look for some other job (I’d suggest paisley patterns maker, it’s a lot more suitable to thy “artistic” inclinations), because what you do is wrong and your mediocrity literally hurts your (and my) clients. You’re getting paid — and unfortunately, sometimes even respected — for unscrupulously copying someone else’s art and putting your signature on it.

Flash tattoos bad. Say “no” to them.
Custom tattoos good. Request them at all costs.

Catalogs or collections of ready-made tattoo designs, presented either in books or wall panels and sometimes, as kiosk-browsable websites. By extension, flash tattoos are tattoos based on these designs and flash tattooing is the act of doing it.
To do/get a “cover-up” means to hide an old tattoo by doing a new one — most of the times, a darker, larger, completely different design — over it, using the lines, shades and spots of color in such a way to completely cover up the initial shape and details.
To do/get a “touch-up” means to fix an old tattoo by inking anew its lines, shades and colors — most of the time, attempting to improve them — in order to give it a fresh look or fix some of the parts that went wrong when it was first done.

6 thoughts on “The Thing That Shouldn’t Be”

  1. all i have to say is,
    i agree utterly and completely
    and now that i am in tokyo for a year or so
    i am thankful i have found someone
    with artistic and personal integrity
    that i can trust to do original work
    i can enjoy as an extention of my personality
    and not a carbon copy of someone elses

  2. Hey, I’m glad to hear that!

    And you did a very good thing by taking the time to (thoroughly) search for an artist whose skills come close to your ideal.
    Only if everyone would be like this, oh! what a great thing this’d be..!

    Sad thing is, many people don’t look further than the first shop they find — either on the web or in a tattoo magazine — and end up with flash work. That is, they end up with bad tattoos simply out of… err… how should I put it? Laziness?


    Even sadder is that there are artists out there literally selling flash work with an “original, custom designs” label on it. No kidding!!!
    If you ask me, they oughta be put out of business, before they can do more damage… but maybe I’m a little too radical :)

    Anyway, I’m glad you put effort into getting some good work. You’re definitely not going to be one of those who regret their choice after a couple of months.

    Thanks a lot for replying!

  3. I’ll give you the best example there is. I was 18 and my ex-girlfriend said pointing to the wall “that one’s cool”. I agreed. I got the tattoo, broke up with her and then…Terrible. I was at work changing and noticed a guy walk by without his shirt on. he had the same fucking tattoo. Different spot mind you, but the same one. I’ve never felt so un-original in my life.

  4. I know what you mean, Dinkwizard… and I’m really sorry to hear that!

    It might be your fault, partially, for choosing a design off the wall but hey! you were only 18… I bet there wasn’t much you knew about tattoos at that time and I bet you didn’t even care about, even if someone had told you flash was bad :)

    It is definitely the tattooist’s fault, entirely. Both for having flash catalogs on the wall in the first place and for selling that tattoo to you without even attepting to modify the original in such a way to make it unique.

    Because that’s my point, actually: less blame on the clients and tons of heavy blame on the tattooists who do it.
    In this, it can never be “caveat emptor”, it can only be “caveat venditor”, because art is only art as long as it’s unique.
    When it is replicated, it becomes a product… and they never let you see it coming, because all that some of them think about is how much you got in your pocket and how fast they can grab it :(

    Thanks a lot for sharing, Dinkwizard.
    Although a negative example, maybe it’ll help someone else avoid this kind of… mistake.

  5. First some information about me. I’m new to tattoo… only been tattooing in the US since September of 2004.
    For the most part I agree with you (I hate flash with a passion, think it’s an outdated idea, no longer needed and should stop), but the clientele and social climate of the town where I work in the US, with the master I had available (the best teacher I could find, a good man and artist) to teach me and the shop I work in make flash a difficult thing to escape.
    I spent four years in art school to gain my B.F.A. I draw, work in scratchboard and I’m teaching myself to paint both in acrylic and pastel as well as use computer software like Adobe Photoshop. Flash is no reflection of my abilities as an artist, but simply a situation I have to deal with on a daily basis. In the majority of cases I deal with two kinds of people: someone who comes in, sees something on the wall and either wants it, or if they don’t see something they like, they leave (even if I tell them I can draw anything they wish); or someone who comes in with a design they either got off the internet or had a friend draw up that they wish me to ‘copy’. I always make it a point to change SOMETHING about it if it’s flash just so there’s something unique about the piece, and I ‘clean up’ any drawing I didn’t do myself that comes my way, but often I’m at a loss as to what to say to these people to get them to understand what they’re about to ask me to do, which is put that insipid piece of trash on their body.
    My shop recently changed location and for a short period of time after the move, flash wasn’t up (I was in heaven). However the boss, my master, soon insisted on putting it back up. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about this until I ‘pay my dues’ and get to the point where I can work in a flash free environment. Do you have any advice for me in the meantime?
    Were you yourself never in any such situation even when learning?
    I don’t know how apprenticeships work everywhere. I understand some of the master-apprentice relationship in Japan from little research I’ve done on Japanese tattoo, but here in the US it isn’t nearly as formal, quite subjective in fact.
    What was your tattoo education like?

    And one last thing… I’m curious. What does ‘Satan Est Nomen Fortitudinis In Corde Ignavi’ mean?

    Thank you for you time.
    I easily spent hours this afternoon (on my day off) looking through your site and really respect your work. You are at a point I myself wish to attain.

  6. Hi there! Thanks a lot for the comment!

    I know exactly what you mean; context is, undoubtedly, one of the most insurmontable factors that force many tattooists to continue using flash. I do agree that the business side of it sometimes requires such compromises, but I have a hard time agreeing with the “absolutely inexorable situation” point of view.

    To tell you the truth, I was forced to use flash — for about three years — back in Romania. It had less to do with the clientele and a lot to do with my “teacher” who, up until the point I started to push for custom, original work, had only used flash designs for his tattoos (he couldn’t draw really well so I guess there was no other way).

    Then, when I moved to Tokyo and had my new shop (half-owned, but mine nevertheless), the “no flash tattoos, only custom designs” became the strongest point of sale, together with the unique direction we decided to take.

    It wasn’t difficult, because I could draw really well — fast too — and my clientele at the time, was more than happy to find a fresh approach (compared to the existent “market”). So, basically, all I had to do was advertise myself as a “no flash tattoos, only custom designs” tattooist and stick with it through it all.

    So, I don’t know, maybe the situation is way different and am not in a position to give really useful advices, but I think you should also advertise yourself as an artist who doesn’t do flash, stick with it through any requests you get from new clients and be patient until your name builds up and gets known for what you want it to be known.

    It might affect your business in the begining, but — if it is what you really want — it will bring satisfaction (to you and your clients) in the long run. Clients who leave because they can’t find anything they want on the wall will leave anyway, no matter how much effort you put in creating something for them. There’s nothing you can do about it and, let’s be honest, it is something that is part of the business flow. You can’t satisfy everybody and, although it sometimes makes you feel discouraged, it shouldn’t break your optimism and will to create.
    Clients who pick something from the wall are there because you have something on the wall for them. Get rid of the artwork on the wall and most of them will ask you to draw something for them, I’m sure.

    Nowadays, with all the means of advertisment at your disposal — internet, printed magazines, not mentioning word of mouth — it shouldn’t take too long to reach the point where you can afford to refuse to work replicas and impersonal designs.

    Now, I do understand that, additional to the clientele, you are also forced to do it because your teacher has made up his mind. There is nothing to do about this I guess, until — as you say — you will reach a point where you can make these decisions on your own and have your own clientele.
    In the meantime, you still can practice a lot on paper, your calves and your friends, become better at it and, in the same time, show your boss that custom, original work looks a lot better and has more meaning than whatever he insists in selling off the walls.

    My apprenticeship was done in Romania, before I came to Japan.
    I do know the ways of the Japanese teacher–apprentice approach, but I was fortunate enough to not be forced to go through it :)
    It wasn’t much of an apprenticeship, not in the “usual” way. When my teacher saw what I can do without using flash, he had no problem in letting me do it my way. No pressure was put upon me at anytime; I guess that makes me one of the lucky ones, because I had the oportunity to develope my style free of any obstacles.

    There’s a lot to talk about this and it is really hard to avoid giving advice out of context, but I definitely can tell you that, if you keep trying and are consistent in your work, one day you will be able to do it the way you want.
    And from then on, several thousand people will be happier than the several tens of thousands that end up with flash tattoos…

    > > I always make it a point to change SOMETHING about it if it’s flash just so there’s something unique about the piece, and I ‘clean up’ any drawing I didn’t do myself that comes my way
    It is a start and there’s nothing wrong with it. I used to do it myself for a few years. I happen to do it now, when people bring in designs they spent several nights/weeks/months to draw by themselves.
    It is natural and, as long as you are successful in modifying the designs and make them unique and personalized for the respective client, it is a step outside the flash zone.
    It’s a good thing and you should keep doing it, and keep explaining to them why it is a must.
    No effort is too big when it comes to truly satisfying your clients and creating a life-lasting piece of art.

    P.S.: Satan Est Nomen Fortitudinis In Corde Ignavi is the Latin translation for what would sound like “Satan is the name of courage in the heart of the coward” in English ;) A rough paraphrase to Brandon Lee’s “God is the name of mother in the mouths of all children” (“The Crow”).

    Thanks again for dropping by, Eliaz!
    And apologies for the delay; the current schedule is mad and I simply haven’t been able to reply until now ;)

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