Choosing Tattoo Art Designs

Tribal back piece

Tattoo art designs drawn on paper are also called "flash." Flash can be an original design, hand-drawn by a local tattoo artist, or it can be a professionally printed drawing that's sold to shops and individuals around the world. Some tattooists are well-known for their flash art designs.

Styles of Tattoo Art Designs

Tattoo art is varied, ranging from basic images to intricate creations. It can be simple or sophisticated, demure or shocking, classic or creative. Tats can be brightly colored or shaded in gray.

Popular styles include:

  • Celtic, featuring geometric designs and intricately knotted lines.
  • Tribal, displaying strong lines and symbolic patterns.
  • Classic, also called Old School, including the eagles, pinup girls, and name banners across hearts that were popular decades ago.
  • New School, a modern take on classic tattoos. They're bold and bright, often with a touch of the surreal.
  • Religious, with Christian, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist, or other sacred imagery.
  • Realistic, showing off the artist's skill at rendering animals, nature scenes, or the human body. Techniques called fineline and black-and-grey are often used for realistic-looking art.
  • Biomechanical, detailing real or imagined machinery that may seem to emerge from the body.
  • Japanese, with richly color images in the style of Japanese paintings.
  • Fantasy, picturing fairies and unicorns.
  • Gothic, incorporating dark images such as skulls or fallen angels.

In addition, there are Zodiac tattoos, military tattoos, feminist tattoos, and many other options. Great tattoo art designs can also combine styles or demonstrate a unique style of their own.

Tattoo Conventions

Tattoo in progress

Artists often bring samples of their work to tattoo conventions. They'll usually have photo albums showing off tats they've done. They may also bring photocopies of flash they've drawn, to sell to customers and other artists. If you buy flash at a convention and plan to have a tattoo of the design, here are some things to consider:

  • How complex is the design? Will another artist be able to duplicate it?
  • Does the flash come with a stencil? A stencil is a line drawing of the design, without color or shading. Your artist will use it to transfer the outline to your skin. Without a stencil, a design is more difficult to copy.
  • How many copies of the flash were made? If it's a popular design, you may see your tattoo on other fans of the artist.

Tattoo Shops

Tattoo shop sign

Tattoo shops will often have sheets of flash art designs for customers to choose from. Many people prefer custom tattoos, but flash can be a starting point for an original design. Flash sheets have multiple variations on a design. There will likely be a sheet of rose tattoos, a page of eagles, a selection of hearts. You might also find motorcycles, dragons, unicorns, and other familiar tattoo images. If you see something you like, you can certainly go with that design. If you want something original, show the design to the artist and ask if he or she can create a custom tattoo that incorporates the elements you like.

If you're surfing the web, don't forget to visit individual shops' web sites. Artists sometimes post examples of their own, original work in the form of flash. You might find inspiration, or you might connect with an artist whose work you love.

Classic Designs

Classic flash, by old-school artists like Sailor Jerry, can be a fashion statement all its own.

  • Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins was a famous tattoo artist whose classic designs were widely admired. His pin-up girls are still popular today.
  • Tom Berg worked in San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century. His art designs evoke the early 1900's and the Roaring 20's.
  • August "Cap" Coleman was based in Norfolk, Virginia. His designs were widely admired by other artists and by tattoo-loving sailors.
  • Bert Grimm set up shop in California in the mid-1900's, after training with several famous tattooists. He was known for the quality of his work and for his patriotic, nautical, and other classic designs.

Vintage designs can be hard to find. The web site Tattoo Archive has information about tattoo history and brief bios of some of the best-known artists, with examples of their work.

Ordering Online

There are so many online flash sites, it's impossible to review them all. New sites appear often, and established sites sometimes launch new sections. Depending on the site, flash can be downloaded for free, purchased as a file, or ordered on CD. Two well-known places to look for designs are Tattoo Johnny and Tattoo Now.

Tattoo Zone has over 1,500 flash art designs that are available for free. Many designs come from artists who are hoping to promote their work. Tattoo has a similar gallery of free designs.

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