Vintage Tattoo Flash is Highly Collectible Art

Vintage Tattoo Flash is Highly Collectible Art

We sell a variety of art at our Saturday weekly auctions, and one genre that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves is vintage tattoo flash. These are the original drawings and hand-painted designs that were hung in tattoo parlors and placed in binders for customers to review and choose from.

Recently, we auctioned a lot of three hand-painted designs from the 1950s that were marked by the artist. While bidding for all our auction items starts at $10, online bidding heated up quickly prior to the auction. On auction day, an Internet bidder from Pennsylvania paid $2,000 hammer price for the lot.

There’s no question that tattoo art is popular. One report I saw stated that 30 percent of adults have at least one tattoo and that the industry is expected to grow to $1.1 billion by 2020.

Body art dates back to ancient times, as evidenced by Egyptian mummies and the 5,300-year-old frozen “Iceman” that was found in the Italian Alps in 1991. During the 18th and 19th centuries, tattoos were considered a form of fashion and even royalty had them.

While popular during World Wars I & II, tattoos started getting a bad rap. By 1961, New York City made it illegal to give someone a tattoo, and that ban was not lifted until 1997.

In recent years, the popularity of tattoos has exploded, probably because of television shows like Ink Master, LA Ink, Tattoo Highway and others. Tattoo conventions and tattoo flash day events also help promote this art form.

If you’re looking to start a collection, here are a few tips:

Research the artists: Familiarize yourself with the work of some of the greatest “old school” tattoo artists like Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, and his protégé Don Ed Hardy. Sailor Jerry was best known for his “Aloha” monkey, eagles, snakes, bottles of booze and other cool symbols. Hardy also studied Japanese classical tattoo under master artist, Horihide.

Know what you’re looking at: Vintage tattoo flash art from the 1940s and 1950s was either hand drawn with a pen or painted with watercolor and acrylics. The felt tip pen wasn’t invented until the mid-1960s, so keep that in mind when examining the art. Also, watch for reproductions as current-day tattoo artists like the vintage styles and often will replicate them.

Examine condition: Unlike fine art, vintage tattoo flash doesn’t need to be in pristine condition. In fact, it’s better if the art shows some signs of age and distress. After all, these pieces were handled daily by customers. For that reason, most artists created their designs on heavy stock.

Check for markings: Most tattoo artists include their initials, a stamp, or some other marking on flash to mark their work.

If you’re already a tattoo flash collector, now is a great time to sell, as serious collectors are willing to pay top dollar for vintage work. If you’re starting or expanding your collection, be prepared that vintage tattoo flash is scarce. It can be expensive and time-consuming, but most collectors will tell you that it’s worth the pain.


Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale.

Contact:, or @EJs_Auction on Twitter.



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