In the world of classic tattoo art, before the image was marked on the body, there was the flash. These bold iconic designs were created by tattooists on sheets of paper and displayed in tattoo parlors. They’re part of the landscape of carnivals, Coney Island, and penny arcades. Look closely at a sheet of tattoo flash and you can almost smell the sweat, cotton candy and popcorn intermingling along the carnival’s dusty corridors. You can hear hawkers urging passersby to check out the bearded lady or take a toss and win a prize. Tattoo flash images caught customers’ attention because of what they represent. They include symbols and signs of love and beauty, of travel or time served, of war and military service. They’re amulets, mementos, or status symbols – occasionally religious, often personal. Whether elaborate or plain, the images suggest romance, travel, patriotism, adventure and perhaps a connection to shadowy subcultures. 

Like any good folk or outsider art, tattoo flash viscerally evokes its heritage.  Symbols like the anchor, flag, and the pinup girl are part of the language of images that tell a story of the bygone era of sideshows and circus freaks. And the artists who designed these flash sheets are often as colorful as the images. Their background and history are woven into the archive of flash images. Names like Sailor Jerry, Brooklyn Joe Lieber, and Paul Rogers, included in this important exhibition, call forth a folklore of their own, as much as their flash designs.

Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years.  The earliest known example dates back to 5,200 BCE – on the mummified “Iceman,” who was found in the Italian Alps in 1991. Anthropologists have examined the wide-ranging cultural functions— magical, religious, medicinal, and social—of tattoos and the related practices of body painting and scarification.  Much has been written on the traditions of tattooing in tribal cultures, especially those of the South Sea Islands and New Zealand.  The elaborate tattoos of the Polynesian cultures are thought to have developed over millennia, featuring highly elaborate geometric designs, which in many cases covered the whole body. Following James Cook’s British expedition to Tahiti in 1769, the islanders’ term “tatatau” or “tattau,” meaning to hit or strike, gave the west the modern term “tattoo.” The marks then became fashionable among Europeans, particularly in the case of men such as sailors. 

Very quickly, a uniquely Western style and iconography developed as ex-sailors opened the first tattoo shops in port towns, and a clientele of other seamen dictated a set of images from their military and nautical affiliations. Designs served as souvenirs of voyages, indications of rank, charms against the dangers of the sea, or reminders of loved ones back home. These images were arranged on “flash” sheets—pages of painted designs, usually organized by subject and from which customers could choose an image.  Japanese tattoos later began to transform tattooing in Europe and America by expanding the iconography. As sailors returned from Japan newly tattooed, others, seeing them, wanted similar images put on their own bodies. Japanese tattoos were distinctive in that they were decorative and the aesthetics of the tattoo were the main concern of the tattooist.

This exhibition assembles together flash art designs created in the mid-1920s to 1960s by a range of well-known classic tattooists. Artists like Sailor Jerry – AKA Norman Keith Collins, believed that tattooing was as much an art form as drawing or painting. Collins, born in 1911 in Nevada, joined the Navy in his 20s. Along with Brooklyn Joe Lieber, Tom Berg and George Burchett, he was among the first American tattoo artists to incorporate Japanese aesthetics into flash designs. What started as a hobby became a career for Sailor Jerry, who opened his first tattoo shop in Hawaii. Like most of the flash designs featured, Collins’ visual lexicon includes typical tattoo imagery. But it’s not his subject matter that makes Collins distinctive and important. Rather, it’s how he made his designs. His images are simplified and stylized and at the same time extremely elegant, capturing with a minimum of lines and shading the essence of whatever it was he depicted. His attention to color and detail is obvious in the bright reds and boldness of line represented in the flash. 

Collins, as well as other tattooists, served the rough naval or carnival culture of their clients with regard to the flash art rendering of women. The works here by Brooklyn Joe Lieber, who never lived in Brooklyn, Bert Grimm, Ed Brown and Rosie Camenga, show idealized female fortune-tellers, Native American princesses, cowgirls and bikinied bathing beauties. Caricatured, cartoon-like facial features emphasize these Bettie-Page pinups, with their stylized hair, pert breasts and exaggerated curves. 

Classic tattoo flash artists like the husband and wife team of Dainty Dotty and Owen Jensen take up other subject matter in their designs. Symbols and signs like the skull and crossbones, snake and eagle, and the Statue of Liberty are featured again and again. But Dainty Dotty, (who at about 600 pounds belied her name) has rendered the hybrid butterfly woman creature perhaps to signify her own yearning for transformation. Talismanic tattoos by August “Cap” Coleman, Paul Rogers, Stoney St. Claire, the English tattooists Tom Berg and George Burchett, as well as Joe and Mabel Darpel, generally are superstitious rather than religious. A swallow, for example, represents a safe return home, since the bird’s landing on a ship was understood as a sign that land was nearby. The words “hold fast,” were supposed to ensure that a sailor wouldn’t lose his grip while in the rigging high above the deck. A pig and a rooster, two animals that can’t swim, serve as ironic amulets against drowning.  One of the most poignant of this type of tattoo is the image of a ship in full sail, captioned “homeward bound.” Other artists like Ernie Carafa appropriate other traditions as evidenced in Carafa’s unfurled scroll of flash images.

This exhibition highlights the very qualities of tattoo flash art that make it unique: its connections to subculture and folkloric traditions, the lively biographies of the tattooists themselves, as well as its appropriation and use of classic signs and symbols that are both image and object, surface and depth, while being conventional and personal.