According to the online photo storage site mylio.com, in 2015 an estimated 1 trillion photographs were taken world wide. Even if that number is slightly inflated using their metric, it’s fair to say that in 2016 more pictures will be taken in a 365 period than in the combined 202 years since Joseph Niepce took the what is believed to be the first photograph in 1814.
It’s an easy parallel to apply to tattoo flash; with the amount of tattooers working today and the cross cultural influence that our community has had on the art world with amateur flash designs appearing on tumblr, instagram and even god help us for sale at rock bottom prices on Etsy… a case can be made that there are more sheets of flash being produced per annum than ever before.
Why is it, then, that when you crack open a book like Tattoo Flash: 100 Years of Traditional Tattoos from the collection of Jonathan Shaw you see the designs that scores of artists are trying to reproduce in great volume at their rawest; free of ego or cleverness or embellishment- just pure folk art drawn by tradesmen tattooers, each design tweaked and perfected for the purpose of tattooing within the limitations of their craft. What colors were available and what would hold up, details that needed to be softened because a tattooer who was looking ahead wasn’t thinking about how the tattoo would look when he finally dipped the sponge in the bucket (with a drop of lysol for sanitation) to wipe the blood off before slapping a bandage on but how it was going to look it ten, twenty years… things that tattooers knew that more highbrow artists wouldn’t even consider are reflected in the bold will hold simplicity of an Ace Harlyn designed horse head and banner from 1948. It’s just a design that’s perfect to tattoo.
Luckily the book doesn’t try to make sense of all that. It’s not a commentary on tattoo culture present or future- just a loving look back at the roots of designing tattoos from some of the art’s acknowledged masters who, along with the unknown tradesmen who carried their designs from town to town- setting up near a military base or carnival, plying the trade for people who didn’t need a sociology degree to pick out the perfect tattoo, right there on the third sheet from the left, for $6 and who walked away with a story right here on their arm.
The book is hefty; coffee table sized to do right by the amazing collection of flash that legendary tattooer Jonathan Shaw has amassed over his decades of tattooing and traveling. Flipping through the pages you find image after image that the average working tattoo artist could still make a buck off of without having to reimagine or overthink. Lady heads, skulls, Hot Stuff Devils and the ubiquitous snarling black panther already laid out and ready to go (though you may want to change the prices up a little; $12.50 for a chest piece may send the wrong message) for their clientele.
For newer tattoo collectors who frantically try to keep up with their favorite artists via Instagram, this book will be an eye opener. That weird “neo-traditonal” piece your favorite social media tattooer just dropped a stencil of on tumblr? Bert Grimm designed that when your great-grandfather was out raising hell as a new boot recruit in the USN, piling into the shop with his friends and finding the right Hula girl or WHO ME? duck to add to the growing collection he has under his whites.
Either way, artist or collector, your money will be well spent if you pick up 100 Years of Traditional Tattoos from the collection of Jonathan Shaw. It’s packed with never before seen flash sheets from Shaw’s exhaustive archives; eye-poppers from Tennessee Dave and Greg James circa 60s/70s, Bert Grimm, Bob Shaw, Ed Smith, Tex Rowe… every page a reminder of the power of simple, clean, bold traditional tattoo designs.