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Las Vegas awash in ink

Posh tattoo parlors have now set up shop in the casinos, and soccer moms and senior citizens are lining up alongside the usual hipster clientele.

October 11, 2009|Richard Abowitz

Tattoo artist Mario Barth was expecting a huge number of people, perhaps as many as 25,000, to attend the convention he organized last weekend at the Mandalay Bay casino (the resort connected to a Four Seasons).

Mandalay Bay, not coincidentally, is 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. Barth optimistically billed the gathering as "The Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth." When it ended, official announced attendance topped out at 40,000. Barth wants everyone who still thinks of tattoos as primarily the domain of subcultures like bikers, sailors and gothed-out punk rockers to know that things have changed a lot -- even becoming a luxury item. "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," he says. "Our main tattoo customer in Vegas is a soccer mom."

John Huntington, who owns Huntington Ink at the Palms, which opened in 2004 under another name and was the first tattoo parlor in a casino in Vegas, agrees with Barth's timeline for the acceptance of tattooing and also thinks he knows why. He credits the A&E reality show "Inked" that covered his planned parlor and incipient dramas (and the subsequent name changes) from 2004 through 2007. "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."

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 currently tattoo parlors in Vegas casinos including the Hard Rock and 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 Middle America. "Our main customers are not necessarily Motley Crue fans. It is everyone who walks down the Strip."

Not that celebrity doesn't play a part in what is driving the acceptance of tattooing.

"Every celebrity on TMZ and everyone on a reality show has a tattoo and everyone else mimics their idols," says Neil, who plans to open more tattoo parlors around the country.

Chester Bennington of the band Linkin Park is a partner in a parlor that opened at Planet Hollywood's mall earlier this year.

Huntington saw the change coming five years ago. "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 proved to be such a good fit. "People know casinos are safe. We built it very open to fit in Mandalay Bay. There are no closed doors." He plans to open his next project in Vegas at the Mirage on New Year's Eve. "We are building the highest-end studio ever built. It looks like 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 and hang out, have a drink and get a tattoo. It is a great concept."

So tattooing has not only gone mainstream but has also surprisingly developed a luxury niche.

Barth, for example, says he has a two-year waiting list for clients who pay a minimum charge of $10,000; some of his work can command hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"They are buying a Mario Barth. They are buying a piece of art."

Accompanying Barth one day on the floor of the convention was friend and client Sylvester Stallone. Barth 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 hairdresser. You get to know people."


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