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What exactly is a flash tattoo? An explainer

Words by Alice Snape
What exactly is a flash tattoo? An explainer

When I first started getting tattooed, I had no idea I'd spend so much time deciphering what tattoo terms mean.

From blowouts (when the ink goes too deeply into skin and moves beyond the lines of the tattoo) to custom tattoos (an original design created just for you), it's easy to get lost in tattoo lingo.

In this explainer, I'll be asking tattoo artists to decode what exactly they mean when they say a tattoo is from flash... 

Okay what exactly is flash? And can it be tattooed more than once? 

"There’s no right or wrong answer," explains tattoo artist Andrea @nolseytattoo, who works in Brighton. "If you think of 'traditional tattooing' the answer would be designs that you pick from to get tattooed, shown either as prints in a studio or in some sort of folder." These sort of tattoos are repeatable and can be tattooed time and time again.

"Pre-drawn designs that are ready to be booked in as they are shown on the illustration," agrees tattoo artist, Lauren Hepple, owner of String of Hearts in Southsea. "When I put out my flash designs, there will usually be something specific I am focusing on for that release."

Tip: Make that flash tattoo last longer with our tattoo aftercare products

Repeatable tattoo designs, aka flash, by Lauren Hepple (header image also by Lauren) 

How else can flash work? Are they ever created as one-off pieces? 

"For now (most of) my flash is one of a kind, mainly because I really enjoy tattooing a design and parting with it," explains Andrea. "I use the sentence 'adopt a design' and think it describes how I feel about my designs. They are just silly drawings that I do and then someone comes and takes them home with them forever."

Tattoo flash by Andrea @nolseytattoo

"I do have some designs which are repeatable; traditional inspired designs such as kewpie babies and more simplistic designs that I think lots of people might enjoy – small flowers, trinkets, animals, etc, they usually work very well as gap fillers," continues Andrea.

"For most of my time tattooing, I've only ever tattooed my designs once," explains Lauren. "But with money becoming tighter for everyone, I started doing a small range of repeatable and affordable flash. I hope that this keeps my tattoos accessible. As an industry, we are all trying to adjust to what is a really difficult time for artists to navigate right now."

Why is it called flash?

"The term flash comes from a few different stories," says Lauren, "which ones are true I don't know."

"One I've heard a few times is about tattoo artists needing to be discreet – due to societal views or from when tattooing was illegal [tattooing was illegal in NYC until 1997], and therefore artists needed to be able to pack up quick and be ‘gone in a flash’."


Frog tattoo created from flash by Lauren Hepple

Any other ways tattoo artists create flash?

Andrea @nolseytattoo also creates flash placed in what she calls "flash scenes." "I’ve always loved illustration, and since I started tattooing I kept trying to think of a way of merging the two. My main inspiration is Where’s Wally? I love those illustrations – hundreds of tiny things all cramped together, the more you look at it the more things you find, it’s so exciting and colourful. So I made my version but even better, you find something you like? You can have it on your skin forever!"

Flash scenes by Andrea @nolseytattoo

What else should customers know about flash? 

Make sure you know how the artist runs their flash, says Lauren. "Some will repeat designs and others won’t. Some clients really don't want to share their tattoo with someone else." You can always drop a message to ask the tattoo artist – "and you’re under no obligation to book after asking a few questions."

Two main things come to Andrea's mind: "Number 1, most artists are happy to tweak a design that is already taken so you can have something similar," she explains. "Don’t be scared to ask to have a variation of a design that has been taken if you love it.

"And number 2 – just because it’s displayed online or as a print somewhere it doesn’t mean it’s free to use! As a client or a tattoo enjoyer, I think it’s important to respect the artists' effort and work we put into it."

Tattoo from flash by Andrea @nolseytattoo

Studios and tattoo artists sometimes run something called "flash days", which is literally a day where you can just turn up at a studio (aka a walk-in) and pick from a range of designs and pay a set price. This is usually on a first-come, first-served basis.

For example, Glasgow-basbed tattoo artist Fidjit, often runs tattoo flash days and only tattoos her Drowning Girl designs, donating all the money she takes to charity, Rape Crisis Scotland.

What's a good comparison with another industry?

"The closest would be purchasing original artwork," says Lauren. "It feels special and like a specific connection to the artist in a way that feels closer to them than purchasing a limited-edition print. I think that is what any client is usually wanting, a connection with the artist."


Design tattooed from non-repeatable flash by Lauren Hepple

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