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Lift Trucks Project Lifts Spirits With Tattoo Art

NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - Tattoo flash art was a 20th century technique, popular at carnivals and amusement parks. Think of “Mom” in a heart or Popeye the Sailor Man.

Describing the current exhibit at the Lift Trucks Project, gallery owner Tom Christopher explains that flash art was classical and highly traditional. Favorites changed according to the latest fad. At one time it was Betty Boop, at another time it was the Statue of Liberty.

The Lift Trucks exhibit is not historically comprehensive, says Christopher, but “it is totally typical of flash art.” The works of about 25 artists are displayed, including two pages from the sketchbook of the famous George Burchette.

Among the other artists is Brooklyn-born Ernie Carafa. Now retired, Carafa’s career lasted 47 years. He was an expert in “traditional American tattoos,” meaning, eagles, anchors, roses, sailing ships and so on.

“Tattoo flash has a certain feel,” he says. “It has a way it’s supposed to look. It’s the way it was done in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. It used to be, you had 100 sheets on the wall for people to choose from. Today they want whatever it is they want. People come in with Google images. It used to be ‘My father had this, so I want it.’ Now nobody wants what anybody else has.”

Carafa himself has, “the usual stuff” tattooed on his body.

“Dragons, flowers, panthers, butterflies, octopuses, hearts and roses," he said.

His most unusual commission?

“It was around 1978. This Spanish fellow came in with a bald head. He just got his American citizenship. He wanted a bald eagle on his head," he said. "He was that happy to be an American.”

Chris Machin is a different sort of tattoo artist. He does not do people at all. He decorates cars and other inanimate objects. His surfboard is displayed in the show but his specialty is automobile pin striping. He drives a highly enhanced ’65 Caddy, which he refers to as a “rat-rod,” that is, a “blue collar custom car. They’re rolling pieces of art.”

Since Machin does not tattoo people, he works on a barter system.

“I stripe their cars and they tattoo me," he said.

The exhibition, “FLASH: Tattoo Art as Symbol & Sign,” opened at the end of September and will continue throughout the winter. The Lift Trucks Project is located at 3 East Cross Street, Croton Falls.

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