“Once you get that ink on your hands…you just don’t want to stop”. – Ernie Carafa

Posted: August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Myself, Tattoo Collector/All Around Rad Lady Bunny Switchblade and Ernie Carafa in front of his shop in Brick, New Jersey.

Ernie Carafa.

Know the name?  You should.

First off, let me say that this is going to be more about stories of the time that I’ve known Ernie, not a super detailed review/synopsis (wooo big word!) of his life as a tattooer….if you want that, read some magazines.  Or, better yet, get hold of Ernie yourself.  Pick up the phone, write a letter, creep him on the ol’ Facebook, do some research.   History lessons are best learned first hand.  Well, I mean, if you can.  Don’t go reenacting World War 2 or anything.  Or if you do, don’t tell them about my blog.  Thanks.


I’d first gotten in touch with Ernie over Facebook because I was looking for some new machines and was told that he builds some of the best.  We would send messages back and forth for a few months and by the time I had been invited to do a guest spot at Cliff’s Tattoo in Long Island, New York (more on Cliff and his shop in a future post!) Ernie suggested I come for a visit in New Jersey and work there for a bit as well.  So I did.  And it was one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made as a tattooer.

Most people don’t know just how much influence Ernie’s had on the tattoo world.  He played a major role in the “Tattoo Time” magazine along with Ed Hardy (Yes, for those non tattooers reading the blog, Ed Hardy is a real tattooer who is still very much alive and did great things for tattooing in the 70s and 80s, not a French Designer who bedazzles jeans and wine bottles) And he was 1/3 of “Tripple E Productions” again with Ed Hardy and Ed Nolte, the group responsible for the original Queen Mary Tattoo Expo.  He was also one of the ones behind Guideline Tattoo Supply…one of the major supply companies back in the day.  I actually have done tattoos off Guideline sheets from the 80s…metaaaaaaaal!!

Triple E Productions. Ed Nolte, Ernie Carafa, Ed Hardy

When I first met Ernie,  Cliff, his lady Maz and I had driven from Long Island to go to a farmer’s market of some sort in Manalapan, New Jersey.  All I remember is pulling into the driveway and out walks one of the brightest aloha shirts I have ever seen.  Dark blue with purple hibiscus flowers.  Hair slicked back (at least at the start of the day, he looks and talks like someone outta “The Goodfellas” movie…but, well…in an aloha shirt.  You know, thick Brooklyn accent (“Cawfee wit two shugga and a bit ah cream” – how the fuck do you type out an accent?!), polite but you know he’s been around the block a couple times and is nobody’s fool.  Oh! Ma!  The man smokes more than I do, drinks almost as much coffee as I do, and has an insatiable sweet tooth.  But somehow manages to still fit into pants that look like someone skinned a couch from the 70s.  Jerk.  And he snaps his fingers when he walks.  I’m not sure why I even noticed it, but I did…and it’s something that, to me anyways, is distinctly Ernie, even now.

Ernie’s old shop, Tattoo City, was destroyed by a fire the year before I’d gone down to visit.  But he had opened up a new place in Bricktown called 732 Tattoo.  In a strip mall off the main road, next to a deli with some of the best giant dill pickles from a barrel you could ever eat.  It was kind of an odd set up at first really.   Beautiful, don’t get me wrong…but unless you knew who the old guy in the shop really was, you didn’t get a sense of the history there until you took a minute to search the walls.  Initially there wasn’t much in the ways of flash up…mostly old Japanese block prints and paintings and a few sheets on a flip through flash rack.  But there were a few sheets in Ernie’s station that he’d painted, and a couple Cap Coleman sheets hanging above the window that I used to lose track of time staring at.  There were two touch screen computer monitors built into the front desk where, if people actually took the time to look, you could find thousands of the coolest traditional designs you could imagine.  And some of the pinner seller shit, you know, script, angel wings, Mickey Mouse..that type of stuff.  It’s too bad most people didn’t really take notice.  By the time I’d gone back for a second visit to Ernie’s place the following year, I walked into what I’d thought his shop would look like the first time.  Flash everywhere.  Some new stuff, but mainly sheets older than I was.  Stacked 6 rows high.  It sounds weird, but you could smell the history.  The age of the sheets….it felt like a shop.  It was rad.  (Ernie has since sold the shop to a friend and incredible tattooer, Mike Schweigert and it now goes by the title of Black Panther Tattoo Parlour…if you’re in the area, stop in, get tattooed.)

When I first started out painting flash…well, it was bad.  I’ll be the first to tell ya, I sucked.  Holy shitballs it was awful.  I had no clue what I was doing or how to paint flash properly.  Ernie had asked what I was using and at the time it was pretty much whatever I found…so knock off Doc Martins, some dollar store paint brushes and cheapest water color paper I could find.  Nope! Wrong, wrong and wrong.

“Go grab me a coffee and a salami sandwich from the deli and when you get back I’ll show ya how Malone taught me……and a pack of smokes”  (Note! For the non-tattooers who happen to be reading this, Mike “Rollo” Malone was a tattooer most tattooers would agree was one of the best there was.  Some of the nicest flash I’ve ever seen. A brief introduction to the man behind the magic can be found here )

First things first, you need good paper or board.  And tube water colors.  Fork out a bit extra for a couple of good quality brushes.  Then, practice…waste a few sheets until you’ve figured out how to pull the color to fade…get angry, smoke lots, and try again.  I would paint a sheet, show it to Ernie, and he’d give me some pointers on how to make it better.  Be it the layout of designs, where the black was, too much/too little etc.  Eventually I started painting larger designs and sheets as gifts for Ernie for the shop.  He still has them I think…

What Ernie taught me made painting flash fun.  I’ve slacked ass a bit as of late, but I try to paint a few times a week.  If it’s just a small, quick painting I’ll sometimes use Doc Martin’s and whatever piece of water color paper I have hanging around, but if it’s a large piece or a commissioned painting, I’ll still mainly use tube colors.

Picking up pointers, watching Ernie shade the Eagle.

Some time during my first trip to Ernie’s a lovely lady by the name of Bunny Switchblade and her husband Taz drove up to get tattooed by me and Ernie.  Not two tattoos, but a collab piece.  I would line it and Ernie would shade.  Talk about being nervous!  It was pretty cool though, doing it that way knowing that that’s how he and Paul Rogers would sometimes work.  Ernie would line, Paul would shade.  For those not in the know, Paul Rogers was a tattooer from the generation before Ernie’s.  When tattoos were for sailors, convicts and people of questionable character (well, that’s what we’ll tell ya.  So called “normal” people were still being tattooed as well…but it sounds cooler)  Ernie learned a lot from that man, and still holds him in the highest regard – as do most tattooers, even those, like myself who never were lucky enough to meet him.  Most who knew Paul often called him “Pops” and he’s still credited as one of the best machine builders ever.  ( More can be read about Paul Rogers here) I’ve done two other collaboration pieces, another one with Ernie and one with Jed Hill of Australia (more on that craziness at a later date)

Finished eagle on Bunny!  Lined by myself, shading by Ernie.

Whenever I was down there working, I would stay at Ernie’s and if ever you couldn’t find him in the house, he was in the garage working on machines.  The garage was full of tattoo memorabilia that most people could only dream of seeing.  Boxes upon boxes stacked in ways that would make Tetris champions proud.  Filled to the brim with original flash from Rogers and Coleman, others with old acetate stencils that I’d eventually paint sheets from.  Even more with castings from machines that he and Paul would build.  Just tattoo stuff.  Everywhere.  Wherever you turned there was more to look at.  There was just enough room for me to stand off to the side and give him enough room to work.  I’d watch him build machines for a while and you could tell he was in the zone.  Happy.  Even if he was looking for 15 minutes to find the drill bit he was already holding in his hand, lighting a cigarette only to put it down on the counter and let it burn itself out as he worked… you could just tell.  He’d tell me the basics of what he was doing while I was watching, but I’ll be the first to tell you..I have no intention of being a machine builder.

During my two trips down to Jersey, Ernie tattooed my back.  Initially I’d wanted a phoenix and he had sent me a scan of a beautiful painting done by Hardy while I was still up in Canada and told me to do the line drawing.  That fucker took me 4 hours.  Damn.  But by the time we were ready to tattoo, it had gone from a Hardy phoenix to a “War Eagle” design by Cap Coleman (read about August “Cap” Coleman here) After wasting enough paper to make at least one paper mache pinata of decent size and structure…I’d finally sized the bird to a point where Ernie was good with tattooing it.  Then I made a hand stencil (well, two…the first one wasn’t good enough) and set to it.  The outline was done in 40 minutes.  What the hell?!  It took me longer to size and stencil than the actual outline.  Bogus!  Quick coffee and cigarette break and then back to it.  Before I tapped Ernie had gotten all the line work and the lead wing of the bird done and shaded.  I kid you not, that thing healed in a week.  Ridiculous! But I had to head north of the border before we could finish it the first trip, so for a year I walked around with an out line and half shaded eagle. And it was bad ass.  We finished it the second trip, I think it took Ernie an hour, maybe an hour and a half, tops.  A Cap Coleman design, tattooed by a man who’d been tattooed by Cap himself with a machine Coleman had given him. Now, I understand that most people wouldn’t understand how bad ass that is..but for us tattooers, that shit’s ace!  Magic.  This machine, when you held it I swear to whatever god you believe in (or don’t, I really don’t care either way) you felt the love in it.  To look at it you kind of questioned how it ran so well, it was light as a feather, a bit crooked and the back coil was loose and the bar hit off.  From what Ernie tells me the springs are older than I am… but it is easily the smoothest running machine I’ve ever seen. Just….magic.  EDIT BITCHES!!!! Ernie sent me a message this morning…”On that Coleman machine it went from Coleman to Rogers to Malone to Jimmy Hankins to Frank Mills back to me after me it’s going swimming Paul had a pair of them one went to Huck and one was to go to me but Paul gave it to Malone for all the bulldog he sent him. I’m glad it happened that way it added more mojo to it”

My favorite thing about the friendship I’ve developed with Ernie are the stories.  Holy Jesus the stories.  I mean really, how many people do you know that had pet peacocks?!

One night Ernie had taken out an old dusty shoe box full of old letters he still had between him and Paul.  One I read was from Paul who was on his way up to New Jersey for a visit and wrote Ernie asking him to pick up a few things so that they could wind some coils.  It had to be a specific fishing reel, from a specific store, because those were the ones that worked the best.  You could tell by things written that there was history there, hidden inside jokes, nicknames etc..but I didn’t ask.  I’d seen a couple of video interviews done with Paul a few years before he passed away in 1990 and it was easy to read the letters and here his North Carolina accent as though you were listening to him say it.  It’s little things like that that make you smile.  I actually wish people still wrote letters to one another, or at the very least postcards.  Seems like more thought goes into something you have to actually write out nice enough for people to be able to read rather than send a 15 second text or an email. (As I sit here in front of my laptop, typing this blog, texting Bud about the trials and tribulations of the day)

Ernie has since semi-retired, moved down to Melbourne Florida and is enjoying himself.  He’s keeping busy.  I talk to him on the phone pretty regularly, even if it’s just for a quick hello and hopefully will get down to visit him again shortly.  I hold the man in the highest regard.  Respect doesn’t even begin to really describe what I have for the man.  I know that if I have a question, concern, rant…whatever.  I can pick up the phone, and, if he’s awake, bounce ideas off him.  I know that, although I might not like what I hear from him…it’s honest and to the point.  He is a true legend in this thing we call tattooing.

There you have it folks…my first somewhat serious post on the blog.  This took longer than I’d care to mention, but it’s done.  And way better than the first draft thanks to Bud.  I gotta remember that while I know who I’m talking about…some of ya don’t, so I must describe! Use your words, self!

Links are to Tattoo Archive’s website, by Mr Chuck Eldridge and all info in said links are courtesy of him.  I just provided the technical magic carpet ride.
Photos are either mine or Ernie’s.

Gracias and Adios Muchachos!


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