The Art of Tattoo Flash:  How It Is Created and Applied in Today’s Industry

Tattoo FlashTattoo flash is a staple of the industry.  When you imagine yourself in a tattoo shop, you likely envision all kinds of tattoo designs hanging on the walls of the waiting area.  This art is called “flash.”  Flash has a couple of different purpose in addition to decorating the shop.

As with most of tattooing, the term tattoo “flash” comes from the colorful history of tattooing. In the early days tattooing wasn’t necessarily “legal”, and many artists found work by traveling around to different venues. This included barbershops, carnivals, and most frequently, bars.

As you can imagine, a bunch of people drinking and getting rowdy isn’t the best environment to be tattooing in, but you get in where you fit in. So an artist would set up shop in the back of a bar, and hang his design sheets up on the wall. He would keep his suitcase open, which contained all of his tattoo supplies. If the patrons of the bar started getting too rowdy, or if the police came in to bust the flash up, all the artist would have to do was yank his design sheets down, throw everything into his suitcase, and he was gone… “in a flash.” I love that we still hang on to some of these term, such as “tattoo flash.”

Nowadays, flash offers ready-to-go designs for customers who are down to just pick something off the walls (or within binders) that they like.  Tattooist simply use the flash design, create a quick outline (if they didn’t have one already), and can have the customer in and out fairly quickly.

This was the typical use for flash until fairly recently.  Nowadays, flash is used more as a reference point.  Customers look at a shop’s flash to get ideas and then customize them for their own designs.  Often, a client will come through the door with a good idea of what he or she wants.  Looking through flash designs can provide an idea of style, size, and coloring for what they’re envisioning, but an artist is generally expected to be able to create a custom design for each client, either based on this flash, or another reference the client brings in.

The old-school method of creating flash is to draw it by hand…

Tattoo artists can then buy, sell, or trade designs with one another.  Of course, the original artwork belongs to the person who created it, so it is necessary to make sure that it is being used legally with the original artist’s blessing.  In the Internet age, it is easy for someone to find a design online, print it out, and then take it to their own artist to have it tattooed.  This is pretty bad form, however, and many artists understand that doing so would be the same thing as stealing.

The advent of technology hasn’t just brought problems to the industry, though.  It’s also created lots of opportunities.  Graphic design software can be used to create original designs.  The ability to scan in designs that are hand drawn means that there is an opportunity to try out different colors and sizes without having to redraw the work again and again.

Now you see most artists relying more on their iPad pro than on the stacks of tracing paper we used to have to lug around. In a simple tablet we can carry hundreds of pens and pencils, different types of paper, and thousands of searchable designs. This would have been impossible only 5 years ago.

Buying and Selling Flash

Flash doesn’t usually refer to just a single drawing.  Instead, the artist will create several pieces that are all on one page.  This works best if there’s some unifying feature to the page, but isn’t necessarily true for each sheet.  For example, the drawings may all revolve around a certain theme or will all have a signature style to them.  In addition to the final, detailed images, a flash artist will usually include a page with just the line drawings.  This allows the purchaser to use them in multiple ways, either to make a stencil directly or to simply try out different color schemes.  This is another reason that technology is so helpful.  Rather than tracing your drawing, you can scan it in and make as many copies as you like.

It’s most common to sell several sheets as a package.  In this case, the flash artist needs to decide whether all of the sheets will have a unifying feature or if they will all be different in order to provide a wide variety of designs.  So, when flash is purchased, the artist will usually be providing several sheets of designs, along with a second set of those sheets that are only line drawings.  In the US, these sheets are usually 11”x14”.

Prices for flash will vary according to what the market wants.  A highly sought after artist will therefore be able to charge considerably more than a new, unknown artists.  That said, having a new perspective or incredible style can certainly make a newer artist’s work more valuable.

Of course, he or she must get the flash in front of potential buyers.  Again, technology can be beneficial.  Where previous generations had to beat the pavement to personally go to local tattoo shops, today’s flash artists can create web sites and market their work online.  In order to avoid having designs stolen, however, there are some good practices to keep in mind, such as using small, low-resolution photos, posting angled shots so the designs can’t be easily traced, or applying a transparent watermark over the design.  This helps to show who owns it and discourages others from using it without payment.

Remember that the market for tattoo flash is not the same as the audience for a tattoo.  The person coming into a shop for a tattoo is not the flash artist’s target audience.  Instead, the work should be marketed to the shop itself.

Selling sheets directly to shop is probably the most obvious way to make some extra income from your designs, but there are many more. Creating t-shirts through print on demand services, making one-off or custom designs for commissions, and even framing and trying different markets such as etsy are all viable options.

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Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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