Tattoo artist Mario Barth was expecting a huge number of people, perhaps as many as 25,000, to attend the convention he organized for this past weekend at the plush casino Mandalay Bay (the resort connected to a Four Seasons).
Mandalay Bay is not coincidentally where Barth opened an outpost of his own Starlight Tattoo chain last year. So bringing his annual tattoo convention to Vegas (in the past New Jersey was home to the gathering) was a natural to move. Expecting bigger numbers in Vegas than he had in Jersey, Barth optimistically billed the convention as the “The Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth.” When it ended, official announced attendance in fact topped out at 40,000. Barth is hoping to get the convention certified as the largest ever by Guinness.
Barth wants everyone who still thinks of tattoos as primarily the domain of subcultures like bikers, sailors and Gothed-out punk rockers to know things have changed. “For 30 years we have been trying to go mainstream, and that has finally happened where people know this as an art. And the number of people in the general public getting tattoos is enormous,” Barth says.
That was the main driver to deciding to both open his first shop outside New Jersey and bringing his convention from Jersey to Mandalay Bay. “The past five years the numbers have become so big for both tattooing and the convention that New Jersey was maxed out. We had to bring it to Vegas to get it to the next level: more credibility, more exposure and a place where the general public feels secure.” Barth says. “Now it is everyone who wants a tattoo. It is no longer a subculture where you have to be a biker. Our main tattoo customer in Vegas is a soccer mom. It is seen now as individual expression and fashion. The buyer is the general public. ”
John Huntington, who owns what is currently called Huntington Ink at the Palms, which opened under another name in 2004 and was the first tattoo parlor in a casino in Vegas, agrees with Barth’s timeline crediting the television reality show “Inked” on A&E that covered his planned parlor and incipient dramas (and the subsequent name changes) from 2004 to '07. “I think the TV show really helped. The demographic changed so much since the show hit. My first customer this morning was a 69-year-old lady who loved the show. I made a place comfortable for everyone that looked high-end and cool. That is what the clientele at the Palms wanted to see. That is what the country wanted to see.” And Huntington thinks casino executives noticed something else about the business from his television show: “Tattoo shops make a lot of money, and that was something people saw on the show. We have incredible profit margins, and the recession hasn’t hurt us one bit.”
There are tattoo parlors in Vegas casinos ranging from the Hard Rock to O’Shea’s. Two shops are owned by Motley Crue singer Vince Neil, who opened his first parlor on the Strip four years ago. Neil also sees Vegas as the perfect stage to present tattooing to mainstream America. “Our main customers are not necessarily Motley Crue fans. It is everyone who walks down the Strip, which is everyone.” Not that celebrity doesn’t play a part in what is driving the mainstream acceptance of tattooing. And Neil isn’t the only celebrity connected to a tattoo parlor in Vegas. Chester Bennington of the band Linkin Park is partner in a tattoo parlor that opened at Planet Hollywood’s mall this year. Neil says, “Every celebrity on TMZ and everyone on a reality show has a tattoo, and everyone else mimics their idols.” Neil says he plans to open more tattoo parlors around the country.
And while Huntinging credits the cable show with having pushed things along, he admits he had already seen the change coming in 2004. “The stigma was already gone. I was seeing tattoos on all the girls and all the guys I know. And I wanted to be the first one on the bandwagon.”
Barth thinks there is another reason tattoo parlors and casinos have proven such a good fit: “People know casinos are safe. We built it very open to fit in Mandalay Bay. There are no closed doors. The soccer mom can feel at every moment safe, secure and in a healthy environment.”
Barth plans to open his next project in Vegas at the Mirage by New Year’s Eve. “We are building the highest-end studio ever built. It lookslike a baroque castle.” And in the Vegas Mannerist tradition this will not be a mere tattoo parlor but a mix of a tattoo parlor and what he calls an ultralounge. “You can go in hang out, have drink and get a tattoo. It is a great concept.”
And as the ultralounge name suggests, tattooing has gone not only mainstream but has surprisingly developed a luxury niche. Barth, for example, has a two-year waiting list for clients who pay a minimum of $10,000 up to where some of his work he can command hundreds of thousands of dollars to perform. “They are buying a Mario Barth. Ninety percent of my customers you would call luxury customers. They are buying on the name. They are not buying a tattoo anymore. They are buying a piece of art. It is very exclusive, and they know it. CEOs reach out to us.”
In fact, accompanying Barth one day on the floor of the convention was friend and client Sylvester Stallone. He noted that the day before he had done work on singer Usher. Tommy Lee is another friend and client. “Tattoos take time to do. You talk a lot. It is like with a hair dresser. You get to know people.”