Indeed – what happens in Vegas isn’t staying in Vegas any longer! From state of the art technology to a rock star co-owner, Club Tattoo sounds like it should be an exclusive club for the tattooed elite. In reality, the six Club Tattoos that currently exist strive to offer an exceptional and unique customer experience to anyone who walks through their doors.
"We were one of the first tattoo shops in the world to bring a lifestyle concept to the business,” says Sean Dowdell, one third of the master team behind Club Tattoo. “It’s not just tattooing, it’s not just piercing. What we did was we took the culture of what we were doing and applied it to every aspect, you know?”
That meant looking beyond tattooing and piercing to things such as custom apparel and even a “high-end jewellery line that we’re launching this year. Silver and gold bracelets with really cool tattoo-inspired designs. We’re really, truly a lifestyle brand.”
The ability to offer a distinct experience to clients has been a major driving force behind Club Tattoo’s success and may partially be due to the shop’s equally unique roots.
Dowdell first got into the industry in 1995 when he decided to open a tattoo shop to sustain a different career. “I was in a pretty up-and-coming, popular band with Chester,” recounts Dowdell, (that’s Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, to be exact - Ed). “We were touring quite a bit, so we needed a way to figure out how we could pay our bills when we were on the road and when we came back. Rent and electricity and, you know, bills that just didn’t go away.”
Playing in the band didn’t earn them enough money to cover all of these expenses, so the idea to open Club Tattoo was born. The original plan was just to manage tattoo artists and piercers, but once the shop became a reality and Dowdell was off from touring, he decided to become even more involved. Faced with the difficult decision of learning to tattoo versus learning to pierce, the choice was made by process of elimination.
“I did learn how to tattoo and I just realised that I’m extremely competitive and when I can’t be the best at something, I really don’t wanna do it,” says Dowdell. “My artistic ability as far as drawing is horrendous, so I just said, ‘You know what? I don’t wanna half-ass this, so I’ll learn how to pierce and see if I can be good at that.’”
Tattooing may not have been a success story, but as soon as Dowdell began learning how to pierce, he became hooked. “I really took to it very quickly and enjoyed it, and enjoyed learning the anatomy, and it just kind of became a passion for me.”
The first ever Club Tattoo was opened in Dowdell’s home state of Arizona and four more shops followed suit. Just don’t expect to run across one in the state’s capital. “I think Phoenix is oversaturated with shops,” says Dowdell. “There are some 150 odd shops in the greater Phoenix area, which is too many. Most of them are not good, most of them should not be open, but to each his own and let them fail on their own merit.”
In addition to Chester Bennington, the other co-owner of Club Tattoo is Thora Dowdell, Sean’s wife. “It’s something I have to be careful on how I answer, right?” laughs Sean when asked what it’s like to work with a spouse. “The obvious upside is you have as much time as you want with that person to discuss business. But that’s also the biggest downside. We’ve had to put our own systems in place to not talk business while we’re at the house or when we’re out on a date.”
As for Bennington, his involvement may not have big impact on a local scale, but it has certainly helped in exposing Club Tattoo to a global market. “The majority of our international reaction, sales and business is all stemmed from Chester,” admits Dowdell. “He opens a lot of doors that aren’t there for most other tattoo shops.”
Club Tattoo’s success has often been greeted with a negative reaction from other shops, but Dowdell believes it’s just the nature of the industry. “When you start to do well in the tattoo business, other tattoo businesses aren’t happy for you. I feel that I’ve done a lot to push the industry in a good direction and I feel like I’ve given back to the industry, so I feel that sometimes when I hear something negative it’s unjustified, you know?”
Some of this negativity has stemmed directly from Bennington’s involvement. “Other tattoo shops will be like, ‘Oh, they only opened up their flagship store in Vegas because of Chester,’ which just isn’t true,” says Dowdell. “They don’t understand the logistics or anything involved in how I run the business. They just attribute all of the success to him.”
In fact, the bold move to open up a flagship store in Las Vegas was anything but easy. About six years ago, after the third Club Tattoo opened in Arizona, the decision was made to open in Vegas. “We started working with Hard Rock and had a deal in place and then, six months later, the Palms opened up with Hart and Huntington in it and that was a jaw dropper for us,” says Dowdell.
“We thought we were being innovative and doing things completely different. Meanwhile, somebody beat us to the punch. So hats off to Carey Hart and those guys ‘cause they completely opened a lot of doors for a lot of other people that they don’t get credit for, by opening that first store in a Vegas casino.”
Club Tattoo’s roller coaster ride to opening a shop in Vegas continued when The Cosmopolitan approached them next. They signed a lease with Cosmopolitan, but “about a year later, as things were going along great, the housing market crashed and the economy started to fall apart.”
The trio behind Club Tattoo made the decision to walk away from the deal as they soon realised things would no longer go as planned. “We did not want to have a bank as a landlord,” says Dowdell. “Especially being such a fresh, young tattoo concept, we didn’t think that they were gonna get it. And we were right. We took a meeting with them and as soon as we started hearing their ideas for our business we said, ‘Yeah, this isn’t gonna work.’”
That’s when, in 2007, Planet Hollywood arrived like a knight in shining armor and Club Tattoo finally found a place to call home in Las Vegas. Since the flagship store’s opening in 2009, the city has continued to surprise them. “I thought we were gonna do a lot of names and hearts and flowers, a lot of small stuff, but my guys actually do more custom work and full sleeves and full back pieces in Vegas than we do back in Arizona,” says Dowdell. “It really took me by surprise, the scope of work that people are willing to get while they’re on vacation.”
Which is not to say that those looking to get a small piece of artwork won’t be accommodated. “Our guys are there to make the customer happy. We don’t have any rock star tattoo artists that are too cool to tattoo your idea,” says Dowdell, bringing up what he believes to be a prominent issue in today’s tattoo world. “This is a business, it’s not driven by our egos - and that’s my biggest complaint about the tattoo industry. You’re not doing your client a favor by tattooing ‘em, that’s the absolute wrong attitude to have.”
In addition to offering a talented roster of artists and piercers, Club Tattoo has also always prided itself on innovation. A few years ago, Dowdell designed a microdermal anchor for Metal Mafia, patented it and it has since become the top-selling microdermal in the world.
More recently, Dowdell collaborated with programmers to design Interactive Tattoo, a screen flash system that can be found in all of the Club Tattoo shops. Interactive Tattoo holds over 109,000 images, from artists’ portfolios to flash, and makes it easy for clients to browse potential tattoo designs.
“The way you’re looking at the touch screen, it looks like a Ouija board with the alphabet. You’ll punch the letter ‘A’ and every category from ‘A’ will drop down. You’ll see apples, ambigrams, amphibians, arrows, angels and all of those corresponding designs are in there.”
The programme also features a text editor, which allows clients to type text into the system and see it on the screen in all of the available fonts.
It’s not difficult to hear the excitement in Dowdell’s voice when he describes Interactive Tattoo. “This is something that completely separates our brand from any other shop in the world,” he says. “It’s truly the most amazing thing on the market. It’s gonna change the face of the tattoo industry in the next two to three years, I guarantee it.”
Having recently received a second patent on the system, Interactive Tattoo was debuted for sale to the public at Mario Barth’s show in Vegas at the start of October 2010 (reviewed last issue – Ed.). “I kid you not, I probably had 500 shops ask me, ‘How can I get this?’” recalls Dowdell.
But innovations aside, the heart of Club Tattoo still belongs to tattooing and piercing. When it comes to defining what constitutes a good job done, Dowdell says it’s all about consistency and good blending and shading for tattoos. For piercings, it’s the placement and “making sure your piercing doesn’t interrupt the natural flow of the face, or wherever it is that you’re doing the piercing. It has to aesthetically compliment whatever part of the body you’re dealing with, as opposed to detract from it. I’ve never been a fan of piercings that are so large that they look out of place.”
Looking to the future, Dowdell hopes to continue growing Club Tattoo. A second Las Vegas shop is already in the works and slated to open in the next year. New York, Montreal, Berlin and London may also soon be home to their very own Club Tattoo shops as they are all on Dowdell’s hit list.
As I laughingly tell Sean Dowdell that it sounds like he’s ready to take over the world he replies, “You know, I hear that too and it’s really never been about that. It’s just been about [us] trying to do something cool and it’s always been about the ride for us. I do hear people go, ‘Oh, you’re trying to have a monopoly.’ Not at all. I figure that we’re very lucky and luck has always been just being prepared when opportunity presents itself.”
Looks like its time to join the club.
Chester Bennington on what makes a good tattoo:
"A good tattoo to me is one that makes our client beam with excitement or cry because it captured the emotional intent behind the piece.
Also, the best pieces are always original and make people who don’t have a tattoo want to
get a tattoo."
Chester Bennington on becoming co-owner of Club Tattoo:
"I wanted to become a partner in Club Tattoo for many reasons. Most importantly, Sean and Thora Dowdell. We have been like family for close to 17 years. I love Club Tattoo as much as I love my bands.
Sean came to me around ten years ago, after he and Thora had brought Club Tattoo to the top shop position year in and year out ... He asked me if I’d like to become a partner and bring as much attention as I can to the studio.
We trust each other completely and it also gives us something to do together outside of music."
Chester Bennington on co-owning Club Tattoo:
"The work I do is to expose as many people around the world as possible to Club Tattoo. And show them that it is among the best studios in the world.
I also do special live performances at the stores, cater to VIP clients and have used my status in the music business to open some doors for future locations and worldwide opportunities."
Chester Bennington on balancing music and Club Tattoo:
"Honestly, it is not difficult at all. Sean and Thora are the perfect partners. They are the life, heart and soul of this company. We are all ambitious and desire the same things. We want Club Tattoo to rise to the top of premier tattoo studios in the world. They work as hard, or even harder, on Club Tattoo as I do on Linkin Park."
Chester Bennington on tattooing:
"I have considered tattooing before. I was positive that I’d be working at Club Tattoo if the music thing didn’t pan out.
I’ve actually been thinking about training and doing one-of-a-kind pieces for clients who are the highest bidder. Maybe doing one a year, so that the pieces remain very exclusive."
Chester Bennington on his own tattoos:
"My favorite tattoo is the one across my chest. It has the initials of my wife and I and all of our children.
I love my flames too. I think they may be more famous than me. They have really become a part of my identity. When I meet fans on the street, nine out of ten times someone grabs my arms and asks to see the flames."
Club Tattoo Flagship StorePlanet Hollywood
Miracle Mile Shops
3663 Las Vegas Blvd. South #225
Las Vegas, NV