Friday, February 7, 2014

Bandages vs. Plastic Wrap (the Great Debate)

 I was asked by a friend of mine in Canada recently about the use of plastic-wrap to wrap a tattoo.  Her previous experience with tattoos had always involved a medical-grade bandage until this most recent experience, and she was concerned that her artist for her last tattoo had made a mistake.

 Depending on the shop locations, some states (provinces, districts, counties, or other equivalent) have regulations that require a bandage.  Where I live (Texas, USA), we are required to wrap the tattoo with something; either a bandage or plastic wrap.  The reason for this is not for the protection of the client.  Instead, it is for the protection of everyone the client might encounter with what otherwise would be an open wound.  The state does not want you potentially infecting others with a blood-borne pathogen that you may be carrying.

 Let's talk about pathogens for a moment.  Every pathogen needs a particular kind of environment to survive, but there are some commonalities.  Moisture, warmth, and darkness all make for excellent bacterial and viral growth.  This is an important part of the bandage vs. plastic wrap debate.  

 The Pro Plastic Wrap Argument

 The reason given by many artists for the use of plastic wrap is human nature.  When your tattoo is finished, it will be wiped clean with medicated soap, covered with a thin layer of a mild topical antibiotic, and then wrapped.  Whether with a bandage or with plastic wrap, what has been created is a fairly clean and sealed environment over your open wound.

 Once you leave the tattoo studio, the care of your tattoo is in your hands.  If you are going home, then there really isn't an issue, but if you are going out afterward you are going to show-off your new tattoo.  A bandage is opaque, so you will need to lift the bandage off to show your ink to whoever asks.  That nice, clean environment that was created before putting the wrap on will be destroyed, and you trap whatever is in the air in that moist, warm, dark environment under your bandage when you replace it.  

 Thus increasing your likelihood of an infection.

 If you could be trusted to leave the bandage on, then the bandage would be ideal.  Human nature, however, will be to remove it in order to see the tattoo.  The covering will be on for no more than an hour or two, so plastic wrap cuts down on the likelihood of external infection by allowing people to see the tattoo while not removing the barrier.

 The Pro Bandage Argument

 The problem with plastic wrap is that it creates an occlusive seal, meaning that no air gets in or out, and it doesn't actually seal properly.  The point of a wrap is, again, to protect others from the client's open wound.  Plastic wrap may cover the tattoo, but it does not absorb those fluids.  Blood-plasma and ink leak out from under the edges of plastic wrap in a relatively short time, exposing the public to the risk that the wrap was meant to prevent.

 Meanwhile, under the wrap the skin temperature can reach 103 degrees (no air is getting in or out), which means that any bacteria that was under the wrap has an ideal breeding environment.  The temperature also causes the pores of the skin to stay open, allowing more ink to weep out (leading to fading).  

 It is up to the tattoo artist to educate the customer and express how necessary it is for them to leave the bandage on.  If the client leaves the bandage on during the initial dry-out of the tattoo, they will have fewer problems.  The bandage more effectively does the job required; absorbing excess fluids.  


 The debate goes back-and-forth, with each side arguing the pros and cons and expressing their opinion as the "professional" technique.  In reality, both processes are selected by the artist as the best way they feel to prevent infection.  Both methods have risks and benefits.  Each is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence; what they have heard works and what they have experienced.  

 Ultimately, though, a tattoo is a wound.  Doctors do not treat wounds with plastic wrap, they use a bandage.  States like Hawaii, California, and Vermont require a sterile bandage be used on a tattoo.  Plastic wrap simply is not a sterile bandage.  While I will not go as far as to say that plastic wrap is the wrong way to wrap a tattoo, it seems to me that a sterile bandage is more right. 

  Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Custom or Market Flash? Why the Answer is Custom!

 Often, when I talk about "tattoo flash", I get pretty passionate, but other people's eyes glaze over.  "Tattoo flash" is industry lingo.  It refers to designs which are marketed to tattoo studios in sheets or books.  I believe the term either originates from the idea that the sheets being displayed were an indicator that your location was a tattoo studio (it "flashes" to passer-byes) or they were all designs that the artist had drawn so many times that he could literally do them "in a flash".  Old sheets have prices by each design, and before the invention of thermafax stenciling and modern tattoo machines they HAD to be simple designs.  Today, tattoo flash can be very detailed and involved, though they generally are still simple designs.

Cherry Creek is a popular source of "market" flash.
 Tattoo flash comes in two types; market flash and collector flash.  Market flash are sheets of designs that are commonly asked for by clients who walk into a studio simply wanting a tattoo.  Hearts, skulls, daggers, hula-girls, roses, etc, all populated the sheets of market flash.  Studios who display flash favor market flash because that is what sells.  Flash of this sort on display and in use (a key distinction that I will address in a moment) is one of the ear-marks of what is referred to as a "street shop", a shop that makes its money primarily from walk-ins who want simple tattoos. 

 Collector flash is a whole other animal.  Collector flash are made up of designs that are very specialized, displaying the artistic skill of the designer, and are of subjects and/or in styles that appeal more to collectors of tattoo flash (such as tattoo artists), or tattoo collectors who want something radically different as a tattoo.  Collector flash generally does not sell well in a shop, and is used almost exclusively for display purposes, suggesting a style that a shop might pursue or just adding to the atmosphere of the studio.  Occasionally, a studio that bills itself as a "custom tattoo shop" will display collectors flash and some market flash, but the market flash tends to be either very old, by a famous artist, or drawn by one of the artists in the studio.

Jason Sorrell's parody of the market flash sheets.
 I have a soft-spot in my heart for flash, especially collector flash.  I design and sell flash sheets, and my flash sheets helped me earn my apprenticeship.  But, I must admit that as a tattoo artist, I will always prefer to do a custom tattoo.  It has also been my experience that you will get more tattoo for your money when you go custom.  Why?  Because your artist is more invested in a custom piece.

 When you select a flash design for your tattoo, especially from market flash, you are getting a design that may have been tattooed hundreds of time before.  The artist may bring all their skill and expertise  to the design, but ultimately it is a design that has been done and will be done over-and-over again.  It is craft, and not art.  It also does not help the artist further his career.  An artist can only have so many cherry tattoos in their portfolio before it becomes redundant.

 Custom tattoos, on the other hand, allow the artist to bring all their skills and vision to bare.  Flash can be designed for parts of the body, but a custom piece is designed specifically for the body it is being applied to.  The artist and the collector collaborate on the design, so the collector also becomes more invested in the work.  Because of the creative process and excitement generated by the custom tattoo process, an artist will give more in the tattoo.  Each custom tattoo is an opportunity for the artist to demonstrate just how good they really are, and almost always results in a piece being added to their portfolio in order to further their careers.

 You simply get a better tattoo.

Collectors flash by Jason Sorrell.
 As a final note, the second most frequent tattoo I end up covering-up for clients, after names, are flash tattoos.  Most tattooists starting out start with tattoo flash, usually on friends who are willing to be guinea pigs.  Flash tattoos, even when not done by a beginner, tend not to fit the body and were chosen because the client "wanted a tattoo", but had no idea what they wanted.  Having had some time to think about it, they come up with a specific design and regret having already occupied an ideal location on their body with a flash-piece.  Save yourself some regret and some money, go custom.  

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at