You might deem this weekend the invasion of the body snatchers, only the international array of tattoo artists that will be descending on the Mandalay Bay Convention Center from October 2-4 aren’t after your body. They only want your skin. Celebrity tattoo artist Mario Barth of Starlight Tattoo at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino is bringing The Biggest Tattoo Show On Earth to Las Vegas and along with it concerts, seminars and, of course, lots of needles and ink.
The Austrian is the Pied Piper of the tattoo world. When he calls, you come.
“We said we wanted to have at least 500 booths, which is 1,000 artists, and we went into almost 700 booths,” Barth said excitedly. “It’s like having 700 tattoo shops right next to each other and you can choose which one you want to go to.”
Add to that appearances by tat-covered celebrities like Tommy Lee and Dave Navarro, tattoo artists using traditional techniques from as far away as Japan and Borneo and a tattoo museum, and you have a convention that lives up to its hyperbolic name. “It’s a monster,” Barth laughs. Viva Tat Vegas!
Special guest artists from Borneo, Samoa and Japan are bringing traditional techniques to the show. Why did you want to include their styles?
For me personally, it’s very, very important to register and document as much history as possible in tattooing. … There’s really no documented history about traditional tattooing, which influenced the style of tattooing in America. [That] is the Japanese style of tattooing where everything’s done by hand or the Samoan style where they have whole body suits and every single sign that they have on their body means something and they can read it. I wanted to bring the roots of tattooing in. … I brought the Horitoshi family in from Tokyo, which is exclusively working out of here, and then Sulu Ape and the Petelo family from Samoa, which is coming in, and it’s the first time that the father and the son work on the same floor. The Borneo Headhunters are coming in, too, which is unbelievable, from the rainforest.
You made a documentary called “Under the Skin” on Japanese tattooing. What attracted you to tebori hand tattooing?
What really is different is the philosophy behind it. It’s the significance of the actual tattoo and the performance of it. If you got to Tokyo, like I did, and you lay down for your tattoo, it’s really spiritual. The commercialism is completely disengaged from the tattooing part. [I’ve had] 210 hours so far. I’m the first westerner with a full traditional Japanese back piece done by hand. I’ve been traveling there three years now every six to eight weeks, and I get work done for seven to 10 days straight. That was what also gave me a chance to make a documentary about it and film where no camera had been before that.
Has that experience changed the way you approach tattooing?
Absolutely. Thirty years ago when I started tattooing, I was like, “OK let me do the tattoo. It’s just, like, cool, something we do.” And in the process of time when I started to get more and more educated and travel all over the world – I have been in every country on the planet – I started to figure out that’s it’s really more important as a tattoo artist to really get the gift of getting in your client’s head. A lot of tattoo artists have the great ability of really expressing themselves on your skin. They’re going to try to put as much in of their own art on your body. … For me, it was more important to become your tool. … My feelings shouldn’t be attached to it. My feelings shouldn’t be on your skin, cause you have to walk out with it. And when you look in the mirror, hopefully 30 years from now, you should still feel the same about it you did 30 years earlier.
I thought it was so funny that one of the seminars during the convention is about building a 401k for tattoo artists…
[Laughs.] There’s so much to this whole industry. When you were a tattoo artist 20 years ago it meant you work until you’re 90 and you die in your chair. I was always a big believer in, “Hey guys, you need to retire. You need to see this as a business. This is not just a joke.” But if it’s your business you also need to set it up so that you can retire from it.
If you think something is a really bad idea, do you ever try to talk somebody out of a tattoo?
A really bad idea for who? If I think it’s a really bad idea, it might be the greatest idea for you. First of all, I have a two-year waiting list, so for me it’s a little bit easier. If you come to me and you want to have a tattoo from me, you’re going to have some time to think about it anyway. In a couple of years if you still want the same tattoo, you’re going to be happy with it, because you definitely know what you want.
You have a long list of celebrity clients. Is it possible for a normal person to get an appointment with you these days?
Absolutely. I still do the one-inch rose and the name of the girlfriend or boyfriend. If they’re willing to wait, I’m more than happy to work on anybody on the planet.
How many tattoos do you have?
If you can still count them, you don’t have enough. I have one big one. It’s an ongoing process. I started out with one and then I’m still on one, it’s just a little bigger now.
Is the recession affecting tattooing?
Let’s say it this way: There are twenty million people in America this year who will get tattooed. So, I don’t know. It’s the sixth fastest growing business in the country. We’re expanding. We have three more stores coming in Las Vegas. I don’t think that it’s a downturn in tattooing. I think that people are getting more educated. They’re looking for better shops and better tattoo artists. Tattooing seems like its always there because it’s something that no one can take away from you. So, people will spend on that more. They’ll go in and say, “I’ll spend $200 on me, because no one can take that away from me and I can’t spend $3,000 on the car.”