Article By: Chris Callen
Photos By: Milwaukee Mike & Heather Callen
Originally Published In The November 2016 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
Each year one of my personal favorite events at the Sturgis Rally has become the Michael Lichter “Motorcycles As Art” gallery at the Buffalo Chip. The event has grown from a way for Michael to have a place to display his own work along with the metal creations of some of the Industry’s top builders into what I believe is a crucial barometer of exactly what is going on and coming up in the custom motorcycle industry. This year Mr. Lichter went beyond that purpose and used his gallery to bring together a culture in mourning for the loss of a great artist, and one of our brothers, Richie “Pan” Panarra.
Richie was a well-known tattoo artist from New Jersey who owned a shop named Dark Star Tattoo. Within the motorcycle culture he was also known as one of the most amazing artists of our generation. He worked for the Horse Magazine for over a decade as a staff E artist and his work was featured in their pages monthly. Richie passed away last year at the end of the Smokeout Rally and for quite a while before that he and Michael had been working towards this show where Richie Pan’s art would be the main focus of the exhibit. When Michael learned of his passing he quickly switched gears and turned the entire show into a living tribute to Panarra under the heading “Skin and Bones.” The theme of all the bikes, and one of the hardest that Michael ever had the pleasure of curating, was connecting the influence of the tattoo art and culture on the custom motorcycle world. Over 30 builders accepted the challenge to build a bike that fit these criteria. From creations with ties that were obvious like Bryan Fullers amazing Shogun, and my own “Board To Death” that both took the engraving line of compliance, to the build entered by Taber Nash that came with an incredible story of his own origins for the love of motorcycles. Taber’s build also incorporated actual pieces of an antique barber chair from a tattoo parlor, a fitting tribute when you read the story of his younger days with his dad.
The walls were lined with so much art from great artists and of course a plethora of Michael’s photography from his illustrious career. But the unmistakable art from the hand of Richie Pan stopped so many of us in our tracks. I will admit openly here, that I was in this room several times for only moments at a time before I could get around the whole room. In the end, it was late one night when no one was around that I finally got up the nerve to walk into the center of the room to touch the cold hard steel of our missing brother. There in the center sat the silent steel beauty that so many of us had watched Richie roll away on. It still leaked oil that he had poured into it the last time he had it out. With Steel City Steve beside me I reached down under the bike and rubbed my finger along the frame rail to gather up some of the grease and oil. I rubbed a spot on Steve’s forehead, then did the same to my own. I sat and thought about the gravity of that moment, the fact that from such a beautiful life that touched so many people all that was left behind were the beautiful creations he made along the way. My eyes welled up as I became aware that this was the part where I was really saying goodbye to Richie. We had spent years working for competitive magazines, traveled to some of the same places in the country and even ended up being featured artists at the David Mann Chopperfest together but this was likely our last show. His wife Cindy spent that last night hanging out with us and I can’t tell you how lucky I felt to share that time with her. I can only imagine that this was all so very bitter sweet for her and in her strength throughout the week I found a ton of respect for this woman.
Now I could go on from here and tell you all kinds of comparatively meaningless shit about the whos and whats of the bikes and people involved in this year’s Lichter Exhibit. They all deserve mentioning, but the real story here was that one man decided to give us all an incredible way to express our love and sorrow for one of our own, taken way too early and just as his star was starting to shine. For that, the name Michael Lichter should be remembered among our culture as one of the great ones. Right up there in fact with the likes of Richie “Pan” Panarra. Rest In Peace brother!