New York City is one of the first and most influential aspects in tattoo history. In the 1920s, the Bowery neighborhood became the hub of tattoo culture. Tattooed individuals were considered a side-show attraction, especially on women, as tattoos were seen as manly and associated with soldiers, sailors or gang members. Later, it was considered “elite” and fashionable to be a tattooed woman, as Japanese iconography, such as flowers and dragons (in discreet places, of course), were the newest trend. Much later, with the ban of tattoos in New York (1961-1997), the art form became illegal, an underground practice, adding to the city’s rich history in this art form. Today, tattooing is not only legal but very widely practiced, especially in the city that never sleeps.
Modern day tattooing was widely practiced in New York City in the 19th century. Originally only worn by proud American soldiers and sailors as a way of representing their bravery, freedom, family and pride in their country. It was, however, also a way to identify their bodies were they to die in battle or at sea. Tattoos were also a known symbol of outlaws and criminals as well as tribal representation, especially within the Native American community that resided in New York in the 19th century. In the early 1900s, many told stories of being held down and forced into being tattooed by those same Native Americans. Those were, of course, just stories.
American Traditional iconography included images such as roses, ships, daggers, skulls, snakes and eagles, all of which had a certain meaning attached. This imagery was created on the Bowery in New York and vastly catered to the interests and styles of customers at that time. Since that initial era, tattoo styles, inks and clientele interests have shifted and evolved, creating a new, modern understanding of what a tattoo is and what it represents. At that time, however, bold, black lines partnered with simple, solid and highly saturated colors, would stand the test of time and age well. Many modern tattoo artists are not necessarily concerned with longevity and durability, as “fine-line”, “single needle” and “micro tattoos” are the new fads in the 21st century.
With that being said, even over a century later, there is still a massive demand for the American Traditional style and flash art, both which had its origins in New York City. Many customers understand that American Traditional is a hardy, durable and a long-lasting investment that will not allow for quick fading, blurred lines, bleeding ink or constant touch ups.
As previously stated, most tattoos nowadays are essentially short-lived; almost temporary. However, hand drawn flash sheets are still extremely popular. These designs are plastered all over American Traditional tattoo shops for their clientele to select from. Sketched and hand-painted, traded and shared, even sold off at auctions, flash sheets are regularly passed around and shared amongst tattoo artists, whether in person or online.
Flash has evolved and progressed since its first origins in New York. As media and technology grew, so did the tastes and styles of clients. With inspiration coming from every outlet, tattoo artists began creating their own flash sheets in their preferred styles. They would add it to their online portfolios, to reach as many people as they could. Customers would then pick their designs and set an appointment. Very different from the original method of walking into a shop and deciding on the spot.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Lew “the Jew” Alberts, was one of the most influential artists in New York City’s Bowery and was one of the first to develop and popularize flash sheets. Lew was the creator of what would later become a staple worldwide: go in bare skinned, point, walk out inked. His invention of the flash sheet made it easier for clients to become tattooed and for tattoo artists to have work; it was a win-win! Lew later keep in close contact with the newest rising stars of the time, Brooklyn Joe Lieber and C.J “Pop” Eddy, American artists that were spread out across the country in the first quarter of the 20th century. They shared and spread their flash sheets, making their correspondence one of the earliest records in tattoo history.
New York is a place to share in your differences and portray your individuality, especially in modern times. Thankfully, tattoos are very much legal and are now even extremely popular with millennials. Thanks to influential tattoo artists in this amazing city, flash sheets have made their place in tattoo history and will remain, even with the popularization of custom tattoos. Many are still very much attracted to the bold lines and saturated colors of American Traditional art styles and, with the constant inspiration found online, flash has even evolved to encompass modern day influences, such as movies, manga, books, comics and other such fictional characters.
Shared, traded and passed among artists, flash sheets will be a staple in the tattoo community, thanks to New York City!