Las Vegas , Nevada
Mario Barth's Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
In the spring of last year, I heard that Mario Barth—tattoo artist, innovator, inventor, promoter, documentarian, manufacturer, marketing maven and entrepreneur extraordinaire—was producing an event dubbed, without a hint of overstatement, “The Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth.” Held in October at the super-prestigious Mandalay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was an event Barth and his minions said would be the most spectacular and humongous ever held on the entire planet in last four thousand years. I couldn‘t wait to go.
Ever since the Dutchman Henk Schiffmacher (a.k.a. Hanky Panky) dropped out of the international tattoo scene and Ed Hardy began to focus less on the tattoo world as a whole and more in his personal business ventures, the tattoo community has been, basically, leaderless. Those whose relationship with tattooing, either as an artist or a collector, has only blossomed in the last five years or so, won‘t know what it was like when these two knowledgeable and charismatic leaders were on the scene. So, after Schiffmacher began to drift away from tattooing and turn to painting and Hardy was involved in marketing a seemingly infinite line of goods from tennis shoes to T-shirts, an enormous void was created. And there was no one to fill it. Sure, some younger tattooists thought that making a lot of noise about themselves would give them a claim to the throne, but they just didn‘t have the credibility or handle on the facts of the Dutchman, nor the raw aesthetic and genius for innovation of Mr. Hardy.
In stepped Mario Barth.
Mario Barth is one whale of an entrepreneur. Aside from tattooing a raft of celebrities—Sly Stallone, Lenny Kravitz, Nikki Six, Tommy Lee, to name but a smattering—Barth has tattoo shops in New Jersey, Europe, one in Asia, a tattoo supply business, a line of specialized inks and, of course, his crowning jewel, Starlight Tattoo, located in the mind-blowing extravagance of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in none other than Lost Wages, I mean Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact, according to Barth‘s press notices, Starlight was named the “nicest tattoo studio worldwide” by the highly respected National Tattoo Association. Considering the conservative nature and non-committal pronouncements of the N.T.A. and their shepherds, Flo and Don Makofske, you have to hand it to Barth for winning that accolade, especially when Starlight is, in my opinion, really kind of so-so, as compared to much more beautiful shops such as, for example, 13 Roses in Atlanta, Georgia or the super-efficient doctor‘s-office-on-acid ambiance of Deano Cook‘s Psycho Tattoo. But that‘s not all. Among other marketing triumphs, Barth got himself named “King Ink” and was firmly enshrined on the November 1, 2007 cover of Inc. magazine, THE worldwide publication that is de rigueur for fast-growing entrepreneurs and their fast-growing companies.
Back when he was interviewed by Inc., Barth claimed that the—at that time, still-on-the-drawing-board—Starlight “will be the fanciest tattoo parlor ever built” and that he “envisions shops in every major world city—Tokyo, Beijing, Milan, Barcelona, Berlin, Los Angeles, and more. The shops will be what Starbucks is to coffee: pleasant, reliable, and ubiquitous.” Wow. And all I really knew about Barth was his self-proclaimed celebrity status and a tattoo show in New Jersey‘s Meadowlands that people who attended told me was, essentially, a fizzle.
So, when I heard about Barth‘s putting on something unself-consciously dubbed the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth in a city famous for rocket-to-the-moon hyperbole and giving tattoo artists in general a very tough time (ten years ago, it was a sure ticket to having your thumbs twisted off), I couldn‘t wait. The tattoo world doesn‘t take kindly to people who blow their own horn, but Mario Barth had clearly fashioned himself a combination of Miles Davis and the angel Gabriel, creating his own media blitz and defining himself as the predominant voice over a lot of other voices that simply didn‘t have the skill, determination or wherewithal to take command.
Las Vegas—the most hyped city on earth, the center of a billion-dollar gaming industry, the dream destination for millions upon millions of ecstatic tourists. Las Vegas, home to some of the sharpest, most cunning and wealthy money-mongers in the universe. Chew-‘em-up-and-spit-‘em-out Las Vegas. The eye of the serpent, the whirlpool of avarice, the jaws of the beast, Las Vegas. And the only tattoo event Mario Barth had ever produced, as far as I knew, were his tepid tries at the Meadowlands. Hey, I couldn‘t miss this. The confrontation of the century: Mario Barth vs. Steve Wynn. I just had to be there. It‘s human nature. I can‘t help myself; I love a train wreck.
Back a couple of decades ago (okay, five decades), Las Vegas was just beginning to flower. Hoover Dam was the big tourist destination and there were only a handful of super-casinos on the famous Strip. Most of the gambling action was downtown on Fremont Street and the big hotels were mainly showcases for performers like Sinatra‘s Rat Pack, Wayne Newton and Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley. Much has changed. What used to be a short walk across the road from McCarran Airport is now a twisty-turney, ten-stoplight, fifteen-minute cab ride, even though you can see the Mandalay Bay from the airport lounge window. In fact, just getting a cab was reminiscent of queuing up for the Jungle Ride at Disneyland. First you go one way in a long line and then you turn the corner at the barrier and start again. Four times. I thought Kennedy Airport in Queens was jammed. Nothing like McCarran.
The hotel itself is like a sultan‘s palace in Dubai. The check-in counter is elaborate beyond measure. There are plenty of sweet, smiling, professionally trained staffers that make even the usually dreary check-in process something you‘d love to do again and again and again. From the get-go, it is clear that the Mandalay Bay—and I‘m sure all the big Vegas hotels are the same—wants you there. It‘s simple: if you love it, you‘ll come back again. And what‘s not to love? The rooms are perfectly designed and manicured (everything was clean, first-cabin new with all the best shampoo, hand soap, ironing board, fluffy towels, super-sized TV, etc., etc., etc.) and everyone from the housekeepers to the croupiers are all first-rate and smile “good morning.” “How can I help you?” is the phrase of the day.
And the restaurants. Surrounding the slot machine oases are all-you-can-eat buffets, steak houses, authentic Japanese sushi bars, burger joints, fusion Chinese-French tapas brasseries—you name it. Fast food or big-ticket gourmet, there‘s something for everyone. And all this—blinkers blinking, bells ringing, slot machines spinning—lights your way down the cathedral-like hallways with their infinitely high ceilings and stonework and marble pedestrian avenues. There‘s even a faux ocean with hundreds of beach chairs, snowbirds from Minnesota, bathing beauties galore and even a mechanically-induced wave with screaming kids on fiberglass belly boards. It was a good two hundred yards of this, from the elevator to the convention hall. Truly overwhelming.
I don‘t know how Mario Barth did it, but he did. As much as I had envisioned the other so-called mega-conventions held in this world, with their rows and rows of no-name tattooists, cotton candy vendors and beef jerky merchants, Mario Barth‘s convention hall (seemingly the size of two football fields pressed side by side) was chock-a-block with big-name, big-reputation artists, top-tier vendors and even a nifty tattoo museum hosted by the one and only Lyle Tuttle. The aisles were wide and roomy, but even with three or four thousand visitors through the door on the first afternoon, nothing was crowded, nothing was haphazard. The numbers were unbelievable. I think Mario told me there were seven-hundred-and-sixty booths in all and eleven hundred tattoo artists. All of them working. By that I mean, preparing drawings, pushing ink into skin or hosting one of the many seminars held throughout the weekend, everything from Lyle talking about tattoo machines ($100 per person) to Japanese satomi rope bondage lessons ($200 per couple). Pili Mo‘o gave a free workshop on Polynesian designs and Skin&Ink columnist Kate Hellenbrand gave one called From Voodoo to Vogue. There was an individual and business tax seminar, one on 401K retirement plans for tattoo artists and another on the legal aspects of tattooing. Lettering, piercing, scarification, book design, laser removal, even a blood borne pathogens training. Another Skin&Ink columnist, Dave Nestler (he drew the event T-shirt), presented his famous From Pencil to Paint seminar, Tony Olivas covered religious black-and-gray tattooing and even Barth himself presented a couple: How to Succeed and Accelerate Your Tattoo Business and One-on-One with Mario Barth, just one of five such private pairings, where up-and-coming tattooist could sit one-on-one and rub elbows with the likes of Bob Tyrrell, Joe Swanson, Mike DeMasi or Shane O‘Neil as they work. Great idea.
Sure, there was a booth for Boob Butter and several comely young women promoted the local titty bar, but what‘s meat and potatoes without a little salt and pepper? And there were plenty of highlights, like the two raised areas in the middle of the hall. One featured a Samoan contingent, including several lava lava-clad stretchers assisting none other than the venerable Petelo Sul‘ape. Another, more pagoda-like assemblage housed Japanese master Horitoshi and his disciples. A few days before the event, Samoa was devastated by an enormous tsunami wave, but, thankfully, several men and women from the islands came to Mario‘s event and shared the latest news of friends and families back home. Everywhere I looked was another top artist: Greg James from Sunset Strip Tattoo in Los Angeles, Bill and Junii Salmon from Diamond Club in San Francisco, Tramp Welker from Eternal Tattoos in Livonia, Michigan, Jeremiah Barba from Outer Limits and Big Gus, both from Orange County, Sean Vasquez from Triple X in Europe, Scotty Munster from St. Cloud, Minnesota, Robert Pho from Skin Design on nearby South Eastern Avenue, Liorcifer from Manhattan‘s Tribulation Tattoo, R.J. and Dottie Musolf from Micky Sharpz. Even Stanley “Bowerey Boy” Moskowitz was there to debut his personal line of high-tech tattoo inks.
Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand brought along Sailor Jerry Collin‘s widow, Louise. It was a real thrill for all of us to meet the dear lady. Ms. Collins was kind enough to impart some of her husband‘s wisdom by sharing a quote from the legendary artist. “I haven‘t done my best yet,” she remembered him saying, “only my best so far.” There‘s a lot of power in that statement. It would be nice if some of the young, self-proclaimed hotshots would take the time to figure out what it means.
Booths were pretty pricey at this event. Nearly a grand for a space, but with probably twenty-five thousand people through the door, artists had every opportunity to gain their money back. A big plus was the fact that anyone with a valid Las Vegas driver‘s license got through the door for free, and local tattoo shops also got a bye on the price of a booth. Mario told me his goal for next time would be to get a major sponsor to foot the bill for the entire show, so all the artists could get free space.
Just about every amenity was available to both artists and collectors. Inside the convention room was a delicatessen area with excellent food and, as I mentioned, out the door and down the hall were a dozen or more major restaurants, snack shops and food stands. Plus there were tons of things to look at, from the free lounge shows to Mario escorting movie mogul Sylvester Stallone and his cadre of bodyguards down the aisles on Saturday afternoon. Then there were kickoff parties, wrap-up parties, live music by Tommy Lee and DJs Steve Aoki, Scotty Boy and Skribble, plus celebrity MC Evan Seinfeld at the mic. There was a Best Tattoo of the Day contest all three days and a dozen or so other highly attended competitions for best color, best black-and-white, best tribal and so on.
Several tattoo magazines were represented, including Urban Ink with busy editor-in-chief Paul Gambino manning the booth. Billy and Tammy Tinney from Tattoo were there, too. On the first day, both Tinney and Skin&Ink photographer Bernard Clark were given photo studio space to shoot models from the showroom floor. Usually a photo studio is easily accessible and just a few feet from the action. Since the Mandalay Bay is so enormous, the spaces for both Tinney and Clark were out the door, down about a hundred yards to the end of the hallway, into an elevator, up to the second floor, down another hallway about eighty yards, through a door, across a ballroom floor and into their respective photo rooms. Not only was that expecting a lot of someone they would ask to photograph, but the second floor was enormous, isolated and a bit frightening for someone walking alone, trying to find the correct door to enter. After a day of that, Bernard, for one, maneuvered a space behind the main stage in the giant ballroom. It not only worked out fine but, instead of his usual backdrop, the wall he shot against was a series of Venetian blinds and, quite surprisingly, lent an unusual and pleasing effect to the photos. Gambino was smarter than all of us. He simply set up a camera tripod in his booth and photographed tattooed folks as they passed by. Urban Ink, always innovative, always fresh.
Walking around the main hall was extremely challenging (it took well over an hour to walk around once), and the hard tile floors connecting the festivities from the elevators were so grueling and distant that it was a real workout for everyone. But, at the end of the day, there were plenty of places to rest up, gather your strength, eat, have a drink, watch a show and spend time with friends. Typically, most other large shows are held in convention centers or even fairgrounds that have no restaurants, no nightlife, no nothin‘. You are essentially marooned for the weekend. Not Las Vegas. At the Mandalay Bay, everything you want is right there and ready. The hotels are twenty-four-hour cities within a city. Sure, in the summertime, it can get so hot you can‘t touch the door handle of your car, but not in October. The weather was fine, the nights were cool and there was plenty to do. In fact, some artists stayed a couple of extra days and climbed the Red Rocks, scared themselves to death leaning over the railing at Hoover Dam or got married by an Elvis impersonator. As they say, “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Except for a tattoo, of course. One of those is gonna be with you, wherever you go, for a long, long time.
All said and done, Mario Barth pulled off an amazing, entertaining and fulfilling event. The sheer magnitude of what he did, the logistics alone, would have strangled a lesser promoter. He did everything he said he would do and more. As you know, I was ready for disaster. As the tattoo world expands, more and more promoters are not content with going small. But, alas, very few know how to make big work. Very few understand the tattoo community and know how to give it what it wants. Barth did it in spades. And, I must admit, in a truly appropriate place: a casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, just seconds from the card rooms where so many gamble away their dreams. This time, however, everyone came out a winner.