Yellow Beak Press: Publishing Flash Art from the Past

The pinup girl, the Jolly Roger, the bulldog, the hearts with arrows through them. Vintage flash art is experiencing a resurgence in the form of a subculture devoted to collecting the illustrations and celebrating the history of this unique language of symbols that unite people through common themes.

Local publishers Scott Boyer and Kayla Gronseth of Yellow Beak Press are, at the root, collectors of flash as artifacts which they hang in their home and are happy to share with the world through their publications. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also collect flash the way it was originally meant to be enjoyed, as tattoos. Together, Scott and Kayla save money and travel to different locations—San Francisco, New York, Austin—to get tattoos from artists they admire. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably asking, “Just what is it about vintage flash art that makes it special?”

Back in the early-mid-century, if you wanted a tattoo, you’d flip through pages of illustrations—rows and rows of flash art—like a menu. When you selected a design, the tattooer would pull the corresponding acetate that she or he (yes, there were female tattooers) would etch into with a phonograph needle to trace the design. Then, she would apply Vaseline to your skin and dust powdered charcoal into the grooves on the acetate. When she pressed the acetate onto your skin, it would leave a guiding line that she would use when applying the ink. Nowadays, tattoo designs are individualized, especially since custom tattooing has become popularized by reality shows like “Bad Ink”, “Best Ink”, “Ink Master”, “LA Ink”, and the list goes on.

When I met with Scott and Kayla to talk about their experience launching a niche press focusing on flash art, I was happy to see that they’d brought their books for me to look through. The books are beautiful artifacts,  and have a definite art book feel with paper quality that is appropriate for the subject matter. We chatted about the process, their shared affinity for anything World War-era, and upcoming projects while I thumbed through a copy of Lost Love, their newest publication that sets out to depict the rich and diverse history of tattooing and, in my opinion, accomplishes the goal masterfully.

When I ask the couple why flash art, Scott is quick to respond, “It’s American folk art at its finest. You’re used to seeing these tattoo designs on WWII vets and I’d look at those designs and see those people as heroes. For me, those images have resonance.”

This is evident in the even-handedness of the presentation of flash art in Lost Love. The flash runs the gamut from amateur and child-like carny art to expert craft exhibited by influential artists like Cap Coleman, Sailor Jerry and Percy Waters. The result is a more robust and honest picture of the tattoo scene at the time.

Scott’s reverence for flash art is contagious. Yellow Beak Press germinated from his passion for vintage flash art and the history and lives of different tattoo artists. “I’ll look into any flash that I buy if it’s signed by somebody or I think it’s attributed to somebody, I usually like to know about that person. If it’s an interesting enough story, if it just sort of feels right, if it gains that momentum and turns into something that could be a project then…”

“…Then we just start collecting everything we can find,” Kayla chimes in.

“We respect the craft and we love it.”

I ask about Scott’s apparent obsession with the subject matter and Kayla laughs. It is something that obviously consumes them both. They are utterly devoted to the subject as well as the accurate portrayal of the history surrounding these artists in what was a fringe movement during a very specific American moment. “We respect the craft and we love it,” Scott explains. “We want to give back as much as we can. This is one way of doing that. I feel like tattooing has brought us a lot.”

Because of its fringe status, the raw material (flash art) and true accounts of artists are not so easy to come by. “It was originally created as a tool to make money, so it wasn’t really something that had any intrinsic value to it,” Scott says. “Unfortunately, a lot of times when tattooers passed, their families threw it away or it was discarded, so there’s not a ton of it floating around.”

Once they find good flash and a good subject, Scott and Kayla recognize the importance of fact-checking histories and avoiding legend, as compelling as it may seem. “As far as history goes, you always try to go to the source. We try to avoid word-of-mouth stories and stuff because they are usually hugely inaccurate,” Scott says. “Sometimes they’re really good stories but they’re not always fact. You just have to be careful and responsible, and do right by tattooing.”

“Just connecting with that part of American history was really cool for us.”

Regardless of potential pitfalls, their growing collection, beloved research and the stories they unearthed inspired the first book project Tattooing As You Like It, which took Scott and Kayla two years to publish. “It was a big learning curve, and we really enjoyed the process.” Scott says. “Just connecting with that part of American history was really cool for us.” Kayla agrees, adding that the project also introduced them to a lot of really cool people. Now they have the process down to a much shorter timeframe and have been able to improve the quality of the finished product.

Case-in-point, their current book project—which stemmed from an encounter they had with a man who’d recently inherited the flash collection of Sailor Vern who was a tattooer in WWII and continued into the 1980’s. Though Sailor Vern wasn’t as well-known as his contemporaries, Scott explains that his story is still interesting because “his tattoo pedigree was as good as it gets. He learned from [Cap Coleman] one of the greatest American tattooers ever.” Kayla goes on to describe how they’ve even been able to meet Sailor Vern’s family up in Denver, and have become close as a result of the book project. “It’s been a great process learning about him, and I think it will be an honor to tell his story,” Scott adds.

“Every time we end up researching someone, we just innately find some really cool facts about this person’s life and about what the time period was like,” Kayla explains. Scott points out that there are a number of compelling similarities in many of the tattooers’ histories—leaving home at a young age, a connection with the circus, etc. It’s safe to say they didn’t live average lives for the time.

As we discuss this, I flip through a copy of Lost Love and am drawn to the photo of a man with a large tattoo of Buffalo Bill’s face on his chest. Scott tells me the story of  Joseph Agnich, aka “Doc King,” who was a tattoo artist that ran with Buffalo Bill’s circus. He was found dead in Rockford Illinois with a $100,000 coin collection and a Tommy gun under his bed. No bull. The article is right there on the page.

“We’re excited that people are aware of what we’re doing because we want people to be able to enjoy the things that we are enjoying.”

Yellow Beak Press boasts an international audience of serious collectors—mostly tattooers who use the books as reference. However, Kayla is adamant that they want to maintain a boutique operation with smaller print runs and (at least for now) no reprints. “We’re excited that people are aware of what we’re doing because we want people to be able to enjoy the things that we are enjoying,” she explains. In order to share their passion with the Colorado Springs community, Scott and Kayla have donated a copy of each of the books they’ve published to Mountain Fold Books, the downtown non-profit literary center.

I continue flipping through Lost Love while Scott points out to me interesting anecdotes about the various artists represented. It’s almost as if I’m looking through one of their family albums. I comment on the fading ink, torn or burnt edges in the scans of some of the originals. Scott explains that with the material used and the way the flash art has been treated or kept, that they are fading like…well, like tattoos. Instantly, I gain a new respect for Scott and Kayla and their work in preserving the integrity of flash art through publication. Scott looks down at the page where my finger rests. “In fifty years, this will be gone.”

Yellow Beak Press

Trailer for Lost Love

Trailer for Born Weird