‘In traditional Western tattooing, tattoo customers picked tattoo designs from sheets called “flash” hanging on the walls of the tattoo shop. These designs are drawn in a highly formulaic manner and the same images were often found on virtually all tattooists’ walls although often drawn in slightly different ways. Traditional designs included pinup style images of women, military insignia, ships, jokes, cartoons, fierce animals, knives, and skulls. Women sometimes had their own sheets of flash to choose from which included flowers, less fierce animals, cute cartoons, and other “feminine” designs...

The tattooist credited by many with being the first to market sheets of flash was “Lew the Jew” Alberts, a wallpaper designer and tattooist in the early 1900s. Until the invention of flash, tattooists who wanted to reproduce another tattooist’s design would have to copy that design off of a customer’s body. Once Alberts began marketing flash, tattooists from around the country could buy these sheets and quickly set up a business. While tattooists did sign their own sheets of flash, once a new design reached a tattooist he simply copied it, altering it slightly, and used it as his own. For this reason it is difficult to ascertain the origins of most tattoo designs. Since many tattooists used to cross off the name of the original creator of the flash and substitute their own, it was even harder to know who originally drew many classic designs. Until the 1980s when tattoo shops moved toward custom designs, most tattoo shops had flash on every wall, the front windows, and sometimes the ceiling. Because flash composed the bread and butter of every tattooist’s work, it was important to have a wide variety of flash designs and styles for customers to choose from. Flash sheets would sometimes be organized by theme (i.e., roses, or flowers, or animals), sometimes by artist, and sometimes by style, and other times, by color or the size or composition of the pieces. Other times, sheets would be organized by cost.
Acetate stencils were originally used to transfer the design to the body. Stencils were made by placing a piece of clear acetate or celluloid over the sheet of flash, and tracing the design directly onto the plastic, which would then be etched into the plastic using an exacto knife or similar blade. The tattooist would then rub carbon powder into the stencil design, and would transfer the design onto the body via the use of mentholatum. Most tattooists kept individual stencils for each flash design that they offered, often kept in a filing cabinet organized by name. Today, tattooists who continue to use flash use rice paper, rather than cut acetate, to transfer the design to the body. Even when a tattooist had multiple sheets of flash, before the age of custom tattoos, design choices were still quite limited. Because of the highly standardized nature of the designs, and because the choice of designs was so limited, many tattoos became classics, worn by a majority of tattooees in a particular social group. These tattoos, like other fads, changed as the times changed, but certain classics, like the rose, remain popular today.
Most tattooists would have, in addition to their standard flash sheets, a “pork chop sheet,” a sheet of cheap flash designs that sold for a dollar or less and provided a large part of the tattooist’s daily income (and allowed the tattooist to eat pork chops, instead of hamburger). In the early days, before flash was mass marketed, and when what was being sold was often poor quality work, some tattooists would copy especially nice or new designs from customers’ bodies in order to add to their own collection of designs (i) | (Margo Demello, 2007, Westport CT)