Viva Las Vegas - Las Vegas Tattoo Show 2012

Published: 03 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 220, January, 2013

Winter is only weeks away, but it feels like the middle of summer as you make your way through the throngs of tourists and never-ending rows of palm trees. You enter Caesars Palace in search of shade and discover cobblestone streets, ancient statues and fountains galore. You emerge on the other side and glimpse a carbon copy of Venice across the traffic-filled street. There’s no doubt about it… you’re in Las Vegas, baby!

Even before the plane touches down on the tarmac, all it takes is a glimpse out the window to notice the first signs of neon lights and so much damn sand, it looks like it’s dragging on into eternity. Home to showgirls, casinos, more celebrity chef restaurants than anyone could possibly hope to try, mind-blowing fried Oreos, about a million Cirque du Soleil shows and a dizzying array of vices, Las Vegas is the ultimate destination of excess.

The drinks are always flowing, the roulette wheel is always spinning and all it takes is a walk along the Strip to be awed by all of the world’s greatest attractions at once. After all, in no other city in the world can you see the Sphinx, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Piazza San Marco within minutes of one another. It’s no wonder then that in a place overflowing with so much glitz and glamour, anything but the biggest tattoo convention in the world would seem small and out of place. Because in a town where Caesar drinks margaritas and wears a lei, and where Paris’ famous Arc de Triomphe is covered with an ad for Gordon Ramsay’s latest culinary venture, everything not absurdly over-the-top sticks out like a sore thumb.

Following a few days spent exploring all that Vegas has to offer, I arrived at the Mirage Hotel and Casino on the north end of the Strip to fulfill my trip’s true purpose – conquering Mario Barth’s Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth. After taking in the hotel’s other attractions – including Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles tribute show, Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden filled with the biggest and baddest felines, and Mario Barth’s King Ink tattoo studio – and failing to resist the urge to buy some tacky souvenirs, it was ink time.

The Biggest, You Say?

This may be a good moment to pause and put all the skeptics out there in their place by pointing out that the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth is literally just that; they’ve even got a Guinness World Record certificate dubbing them the largest tattoo convention in history to prove it. Started four years ago by tattoo powerhouse Mario Barth – who began his career in Austria at a time when tattooing was fully illegal and has since gone on to own five tattoo studios, his own ink company, INTENZE, and boast a clientele that reads like a who’s who of celebrities, including Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Lee – the first ever Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth set the stage with over 1,000 artists working the weekend and more than 43,000 tattoo-loving attendees. “It’s getting harder and harder, but it’s also getting better and better,” starts Barth when I finally have a chance to steal him away for a quick chat to find out just how he manages to pick through all the artists out there to assemble the ultimate cast.

Taking a seat on the side of the stage that’s about to hold the first round of judging for the day’s tattoo awards and trying to momentarily put off the crowd of colleagues and fans that consistently gathers around him throughout the weekend, he continues: “There’s a real shift in this industry because there are so many new people coming with exceptional talent, so it’s not like way back in the day when you [had to be] in the industry for 20 years to gather all the information and resources. It’s a very fine line how to get the right people together and make it work.”

Walking through the convention centre, it’s easy to see Barth has conquered this fine line, as the show’s most striking and appealing characteristic is quickly evident – the refreshing blend of styles and eras. Old school tattoo artists – including Mark Mahoney (who is decked out in a flashy suit, as per norm, having opted for a pink hue on this particular day), Bowery Stan Moskowitz and Bob Tyrrell – could be found working alongside the new generation’s elite, as well as fresher faces and a number of traditional tattooers, like Samoans, Su’a Suluape Petelo Alaiva’a and his son, Su’a Peter Suluape, and Horitoshi I, master of tebori. It’s a mix Barth works hard to achieve and is extremely proud of, even if some choose to call him out on the inclusion of fresh blood. “I think it’s like the Wild West, there are so many great stories of the cowboy riding through the Wild West, but today we drive a car. What I always say is if Henry Ford didn’t make the car, we would still be riding horse buggies, so I think it’s a good thing, I think it takes away from what we think is history and it’s time to preserve this, but we also have to open up the gate for the future and the future is new artists; their artistry is just out of this world. For most of the tattoo artists that started in Bowery Stan’s time or Mark Mahoney’s or my time, we would have never thought this was even possible.

“When you look around, we have very old artists, like 80 years old, working on the floor right next to the guy who just started six months ago and I think that’s what keeps it sacred. It’s evolution, and everybody says it’s bad because it’s fear of the unknown, of what it’s gonna bring and I think what we really should be focused on, instead of saying ‘This is bad, this is bad, this is bad’, and coming together to try to channel that energy on… ‘okay, where can we take it from here? Where can we move it? What can we do?’”

More than Just Tattoos

Other than giving new artists a chance to step onto the main stage, Barth is also pushing a number of other boundaries. The first is showcased in the live painting happening behind us on stage, courtesy of Trick Wilkinson who completed a number of stunning paintings throughout the weekend, including portraits of Bowery Stan and Lisbeth Salander from the exceptionally fitting novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Then there was the medical side of things. Gone are the days of seminars strictly focusing on the art of tattooing, it’s time to take the next leap. At least that’s what Barth believes, and this year’s topics included laser removal and cosmetic tattooing. “We’re trying to slowly merge those industries, because really, it’s all our industry, regardless if one tries to put them on and the other takes it off,” he points out.

"The key is the relationship between the two. There are a lot of tattoos out there which were not as great as the tattoos done now and it doesn’t mean that they’re bad, but I think with the work that comes out now, there’s gonna be a lot more people who are gonna go out and try and get some new work done. And if the medical field and the tattoo artists start working together, then they really have a bridge.”

And in an age where everyone seems to have a reason to complain about the tattoo industry, Barth’s time and energy are strictly focused on something much more productive. “I’m an advocate on education; I love to get my industry recognised for what it is,” he says. “Tattoo artists work very, very hard, they have to be perfect every single day, even if it looks all fun and games, those guys have a job like no other. It doesn’t matter what happens in their lives, it doesn’t matter how good they feel, they have to go to work, open the door and sit down, so they should get more credibility for what they do and that’s really what I work for.

“My son, if he wants to one day become a tattoo artist, [I want him to] proudly walk down the street and say ‘I’m a tattoo artist’. And I’m not saying that artists don’t do that, but it’s still a weird feeling, it’s not like, ‘yeah, I’m a fucking tattoo artist!’”

Bowery Stan’s Piranha and Hammer

With the tattoo contests kicking off, I watched special guest judges, Sabina Kelley – who, yes, is just as stunning in real life as she is in her modeling shots – and NY Ink’s, Chris Torres, take to the stage to some impressive hooting and hollering. After taking in a lot of envy-inducing black and grey masterpieces and snapping some shots of the most impressive contestants and winners, it was time to add to my own collection.

Even though I had spoken to Bowery Stan on the phone and via email several times over the years, meeting a legend in the flesh is a whole other ballgame. A little intimidated, but determined, I had managed to jump onto the waiting list earlier that morning and my turn had finally arrived. Having grown up in one of New York’s roughest neighborhoods, the Bowery, and having spent his early years tattooing a seedy and sometimes violent clientele out of the back of his father’s barber shop, you can imagine the stories Bowery Stan has to share. Luckily, it’s something he is happy to do, just as he is happy to offer a quick-witted remark that will rather speedily put you in your place. His work ethic is also something of note and other than a quick pause to draw up a stencil or to stretch his legs, I didn’t once see Bowery Stan abandon ship. It was tattoo after tattoo, something not often seen, especially not from an 80-year-old artist. 45 pleasurable minutes and I was outfitted with something I had wanted since first hearing of Bowery Stan – his (in)famous piranha and ball-peen hammer combo, which he usually reserves for fellow tattoo artists (hint: this is when you turn to the trusty internet to get the whole, very interesting story).

Being me, I had to play with the classic artwork a little bit and asked for the addition of a hat. I left the choice of headwear up to the master and was glad to hear it was the first time he had ever been asked to alter the design he’s now likely tattooed 100 times. When finished, never shy to speak his mind, the one and only Bowery Stan Moskowitz looked down on his work, smiled, and said, “it looks good, yeah.” What more could you possibly ask for?

Mario Barth on… the Near Future

I think we wanna make The Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth an official trade show. We’re working on it, hopefully it may be happening in 2013. So we’re shifting it around a little bit because I think it’s the responsibility of every supplier in this industry to look out for the artists. A lot of people make big business with it, but they don’t give anything back, don’t try to get the people in, I think it’s their duty to do so just to keep this industry moving in the
right direction.

Mario Barth on… the Far Future

We’d love to do The Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth for a week. Do it like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and have only educational seminars for the artists, and then the dealers have their own platform where all the artists can go in and just deal with the dealer, look at the stuff, and then maybe take Thursday off, and then work Friday, Saturday and Sunday so they can make the money. That’s the big concept. We’re reaching out to everybody we know, we’ll see how it goes.


Text & Photography: Barbara Pavone