King Ink, Mario Barth’s tattoo parlor/nightclub in The Mirage, is a glittering example of everything the tattoo industry has become: slick, shiny and glamorous. Rock gothic architecture—arches, columns, chandeliers and plush furniture—give it the feel of a retrofitted cathedral where tattoo-inspired murals replace religious iconography. It has a bar and patio, of course. And it even hosts a weekly Latin night, complete with a magic show and free admission for ladies.
Does this tattoo parlor/nightlife destination/casino tourist attraction represent the end of authenticity? Does it replace all that was once rare and special about tattooing—when it was only criminals, bikers and sailors—with a mainstream commercial enterprise? The answer depends on if you think putting a restaurant in a casino makes the food inauthentic.
“I was told for two years you can’t do it,” Barth says of opening a shop in an MGM property. “Who says we can’t? Or people would say you can’t tattoo in private jets in flight. Why not? We tattooed Tommy Lee for five hours straight in a plane at 46,000 feet. It was the same thing with King Ink. Everyone said you can’t do a tattoo shop with a bar. Says who? Who wrote this law? The god of bars?”
Barth’s goal is to educate the world about tattoos, which he calls the “art form that art history forgot.” With a laundry list of major tattoo awards and ownership of four tattoo shops (two in New Jersey, two in Vegas, and a fifth planned for the Strip)—he is most certainly succeeding.
In fact, the tattoo industry’s recent explosive growth parallels Barth’s own life story. He grew up in Austria, where he learned tattooing before it was legalized in 1987. He lived the outlaw lifestyle as a biker who hung with a tough (and tattoo-loving) crowd. “When I started out tattooing, it was just prisoners and prison guards,” he says. “Those were the two clients we had.” Today, he tattoos celebrities.
Barth also runs his own tattoo pigment manufacturer: Intenze Products. He has been making his own colors for 25 years and is known for his bright ones. He made his name in the tattoo world for creating blue ink when nobody else could and became a formidable businessman in the process. The pigment, which now sells as part of basic tattoo kits, remains his favorite color. It’s called Mario’s Blue.
“Its nice when I drive home and I see my picture on billboards and I think, Wow,” says the 45-year-old who came to the U.S. in 1995. “We came a long way. We started out in basements and tried to hide from everybody so we wouldn’t get prosecuted because we were tattooing people.”
But success hasn’t bred sloth; Barth works 20 hours a day (yes, he sleeps four hours a night) and spends 50 percent of his working time tattooing. He gets excited when discussing tattooing’s tremendous growth. He says that its mainstreaming does not void its authenticity. “You know if Ford didn’t make a car we would still be riding buggies and horses,” he says. “That’s evolution, and it’s the greatest thing that’s happened to the tattoo industry.”
Want proof? Check out Barth’s upcoming Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth, which boasted an attendance of 40,000 people in its first year. He’s made the event at The Mirage free to locals, and he wants you to come. “We love to share our world with everyone.”