Permanence is a sacred concept. Museums exist to conserve and proliferate culture largely through the development and expansion of a permanent collection, which is then shared with the public through a series of exhibitions, programming, and traveling shows. A collecting institution is frequently judged by the quality and scope of its cultural acquisitions, and high profile directors and curators are hired and fired based on the perception of their service to these institutions’ holdings. However, by most definitions of the word, a museum’s permanent collection isn’t really permanent; works are rotated throughout the galleries with every new exhibition, loaned to other institutions, or taken out of public view due to conservation issues. At any given moment, most of a major collecting institution’s permanent collection is in storage, out of sight and out of view to everyone but the most privileged scholars and donors.
Flash tattoos are, by definition, “stereotypical tattoo designs printed or drawn on paper or cardboard, and may be regarded as a species of industrial design.” Flash art is the thick-lined graphics that cover the walls of every tattoo parlor. Designed to be completed in a “flash,” the style proliferated amongst the military in the draft days thanks to the innovations of tattooists like Bert Grimm, Bob Shaw, Colonel William Todd, and Sailor Jerry. An artform that was once illegal in much of the United States has clawed its way so far into mainstream acceptance that just about every pop star and their mother has been inside a parlor, picked something off the wall, and made it permanent. Chuck Berry blew up pop music and birthed rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis gave us the right to dance with our hips without being arrested, George Harrison and the Beatles turned Western squares onto Eastern theology, The Sex Pistols and later NWA transformed cursing the powers that be into high art, and now your sister has a tattoo. “Back in the seventies, people would walk their children to the other side of the street if they saw you strutting up with an anchor on your arm. Nowadays, people are only scared of Charlie Manson style stuff,” says Mark Mahoney, the proprietor of Hollywood’s Shamrock Social Club who is as responsible as anyone for lifting tattoos to their current prominence in popular culture. The body art revolution wasn’t televised, it was published from hand to skin in India ink.
Tattooing and the marking of the body have long been part of the canon of contemporary art. Piero Manzoni declared several women living artworks by signing multiple nude bodies with his Sculture viventi in 1961; Marina Abromovic portrayed self-scarification as martyrdom with her Lips of Thomas performance in the early 1970s, carving a five-point Communist star into the tabula scripta of her belly (she repeated this action a number of times later in her career); in 2000, Santiago Sierra paid four prostitutes the cost of a hit of heroin to tattoo a line on their backs in his film 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People; with Piero Golia’s Tattoo, 2001, the artist hired a tattooist to permanently ink a back-sized portrait of himself on a willing subject above a banner that reads “PIERO, MY IDOL”; Artur Zmijewski shockingly persuaded an Auschwitz survivor to refresh his faded serial number marking in his 2004 film 80064; Douglas Gordon has famously/infamously integrated tattooing into his practice, permanently saturating the entire pointer finger of one of his gallerists in black ink, and covering his own body in words and phrases whose meanings warp and contradict themselves upon reflection; for a 2011 issue, Garage Magazine persuaded Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, John Baldessari, Raymond Pettibon, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Richard Prince, Dr. Lakra (an accomplished tattooist in his own right), and Paul McCarthy to create original one-off tattoos for a cast of photogenic individuals. In all of the aforementioned artworks, however, the works are unique, and the persons tattooed are employed as mediums or canvases, the artists using the body-as-object. Flash art, however, is collaborative by nature. (Other forms of contemporary ritual tattooing to signify membership, rank, punishment, and spiritual guidance are documented in excellent texts like Modern Primitives (RE/Search, 1989) and Russian Criminal Tattoo Enclyclopaedia, Volumes I–III (Fuel, 2005, 2006, 2008).)
In order to obtain a flash tattoo, one must make the conscious—though sometimes regrettable—decisions to select the artwork, plunk down cash, and sit through the somewhat painful experience of a tattooist dragging a mechanized needle across the skin. Flash designs are at once indelible and disposable as works of art; they are intensely personal to the beholder—once completed, a tattoo is a life sentence—yet because of the open-edition nature of flash, millions of people could be walking around with the exact same permanent picture of a heart hung with a banner reading “MOM” the second one exits a parlor. Lose an arm in an accident, and all permanent ink from the missing appendage can be replaced on the remaining body parts at a tattoo parlor the next day, no questions asked. Once pinned to a wall, classic flash takes on a life of its own, reinterpreted by any number of tattooists and artists, and the artwork exists generally independent of authorship. Though a seasoned eye can identify a particular tattooist’s flash by style, theme, or linework, there was no recognized institutional authenticating body for the museum of the body until Gagosian decided to provide one.
For Printed Matter’s New York Art Book Fair (MoMA’s PS1, September 2016) and Los Angeles Art Book Fair (Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, February 2017) the gallery staged FLASH FLASH FLASH: An Exhibition as Tattoo Parlor. With each incarnation of the exhibition, six world renown contemporary artists were commissioned to create original flash designs. The artists were selected by their prominence in permanent collections throughout the world and their individual relationships to the indelible. The designs were each printed in editions of six, then tattooed in the Gagosian’s exhibition space in editions of six over the course of each fair by tattooists from two of the most influential tattoo parlors in the world: Brooklyn’s Flyrite Tattoo and Hollywood’s Shamrock Social Club. Tattoos were hand-numbered on the bodies of the purchasers, and once six people received a tattoo, each design was retired forever. All seventy-two tattoos will be immortalized in a Catalogue Raisonne.
The artworks for FLASH FLASH FLASH each reflected the particular artists’ take on indelibility and the flash genre as a whole. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s relationship to permanence is unlike most others; they and their life partner, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge set about becoming the same person in two separate parts by undergoing a series of surgical procedures as part of their Pandrogeny project. (Lady Jaye passed in 2007.) Genesis has a tattoo of their late German Shepard Tannith baring its teeth and snarling near their phallus, as if to suggest that this seemingly vital organ could be chomped at any moment; their gender identity is less set in ink than a tattoo. Breyer P-Orridge’s flash contribution is a variant of their barking canine.
Richard Wright’s practice is often site-specific and created for temporary spaces, much like the body. The idea of Wright’s permanent-yet-impermanent wreath resonated with Aaron Schultz (tattoo ed. 1/6), founder and label head of Bastard Jazz Records, which he named out of a desire to fuse the typically staid, near-religosity of DJ culture with the similarly firm ideologies, techniques and personalities behind jazz music. “Something about his design spoke to me, and I impulsively wanted to be a part of it, for it to be a part of me.”
Oliver Kupper, editor of Autre Magazine, had Kenneth Anger’s sinister musical sigil inked directly onto the palm of his hand (ed. 6/6). “It feels like I can summon dark forces just by waving it around,” he said, later surrendering that Anger would now forever be a part of his most intimate moments, and probably prevent him from entering the Pearly Gates should they exist, adding further depth to the permanence of his new body art. Anger famously devotes himself to the occult, and has the name “Lucifer” tattooed across his chest.
Analia Saban’s design offers perhaps the best allegory for FLASH FLASH FLASH—the inner-workings of a pocket watch, a device meant to tell time accurately till someone forgets or ceases to be able to wind it. Artist Julieta Gil decided at the fair that this would be her first tattoo (ed. 4/6). “I love the fair. It’s the perfect place to hang a memory.” Her partner, designer Curime Batliner, was another virgin, receiving Sterling Ruby’s ed. 3/6 on his right forearm.
At Printed Matter’s Art Book Fairs, the collaborative aspect of flash tattooing was amplified, as the majority of attendees are involved with alternative publishing on some level and fiercely protective of print culture, despite the many proclamations of its demise. Gagosian’s indelible body publishing project almost became, by extension, a way of raging against the dying of the light. Print may not be the only tangible object seeing its end of days—futurist Ray Kurzweil has notoriously predicted that by 2099, most conscious beings will lack a permanent physical form. If this is the case, let these future non-entities hang the skin suits of the seventy-two FLASH FLASH FLASH participants in their future museums. Let us be a part of their permanent collections.
Benjamin Lee Ritchie Handler is the Book Fair Manager, Senior Archivist, and Librarian at Gagosian in Beverly Hills. He recently curated FLASH FLASH FLASH: An Exhibition as Tattoo Parlor at Printed Matter’s New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, as well as a third installment of the tattoo parlor that will take place at the fete for the one year anniversary of SFMOMA’s redesign this coming April 26. He DJs by night at beloved Los Angeles watering holes like Tenants of the Trees, The Friend, and Mandrake.