Tattoo artist and parlor owner Mario Barth sits atop a growing business that he could sell tomorrow and be set for life, but he is not ready to retire. In fact his legal team is investigating the possibility of licensing his business, but only to people he deems ready to deal with what he calls "the vicious element of tattoo artists."
When Barth says "vicious," what he really means is "egocentric" – something that is essential in a tattoo artist – whose work, after all, is putting something permanent on someone else’s body. "Tattoo artists have to believe they are invincible," says Barth. "Every day they have to be perfect, which of course isn’t possible."
Barth will speak on "My Life as a Tattoo Artist," on Thursday, March 27, at 5 p.m. at Fairleigh-Dickinson University’s Teaneck campus. Register to secure a seat by calling the Rothman Institute at 973-443-8842.
Lots of businessmen have tried to start tattoo parlors, but, clueless as to how to deal with the self-centered tattoo artists, they usually fail within two to three years. Barth believes that only people already in the business, when well prepared, can effectively run a tattoo parlor, and he estimates that 15 of his 40 artists are ready to head their own businesses. He attributes his success with them to several factors:
His reputation as a leader and an artist. Barth has been in the industry for 30 years and has won many prizes for his unique artistry, with good consequences. "I’m fortunate that people want to work with me," he says, "especially if I’m willing to train them."
His commitment to building high-end studios. His first studio in the United States, Starlight Tattoos, was on the exclusive Lincoln Road in the South Beach area of Miami, Florida. It was the most exclusive tattoo studio built at that time, says Barth, with televisions and sinks at every station, automatic water starters with no handles or fixtures, and, on top of that, OSHA approval for the studio and OSHA certifications for all the artists.
His ability to train his artists as business people. As he started to multiply the concept of high-end studios (he owns six – four in New Jersey, one in Malaga, Spain, and one in Las Vegas) he admits running into "some hiccups. It’s difficult to keep artists focused on a business," he explains. "They want to go in and do their work, paint a bit, and after that go out on the beach."
And the disconnect between the artists and business details is not simply an artifact of being more artistic than pragmatic; rather, explains Barth, tattoo artists are a rebellious lot. "They are very against corporate thinking and think corporate is `the evil.’It’s like talking to a Christian and asking about the devil."
The last issue that can keep tattoo artists from business success, says Barth, is that they are egomaniacs who rear up if somebody tries to tell them what to do.
So to succeed he had to find a way to train his employees to think like business owners – to take responsibility and understand the impact of every tattoo they made. So, says Barth, "I started to bring them into my world." He explains exactly what he, as head of the business, has to deal with – paying bills, making sure his employees have a place to work, and stepping in if customers are not entirely satisfied. "I tried to get rid of the smokescreen of businesses," he explains. Whereas most owners try to hide the mechanics from employees, he started to expose them to everyone.
He talks of one business detail that is peculiar to the tattoo world – the kind of image that artists must project when out in a world where tattoos may be, well, suspect. His rule is that tattoos are kept literally under cover when going out, say, to a restaurant. "I don’t want to offend anyone," he says. "It is a respect issue in everyday life. Not everyone agrees with you, and tattoos go against some religions."
Instead he urges his employees to let people get to know them first. Here is the kind of scenario he likes: Because he always wears suits in business situations, often people don’t find out for a couple of months that he has tattoos. When they say, surprised, "You have tattoos?" he likes responding: "Right. Does it make a difference?" Of course it doesn’t, at least not once they’ve gotten to know him.
Barth denies being artistic in a conventional sense"Paper is dead," he explains. "It doesn’t move; it has no organic form." But of course skin is a different story.
Barth was 12 when he did his first tattoo, in Gratz, Austria, where he grew up. One of his friends decided he wanted to get a tattoo and he was the only one willing to give it a try. "Everybody was afraid, and I said, `I’ll do it,’" he remembers, and he created a little skull on his friend’s hand
It was a year or two before he did another tattoo, but then the distances between tattoos got shorter and shorter. By the time he was 17 or 18 he was doing tattoos more regularly and started to take it seriously.
There was little support in Austria for tattooing, even decades after World War II, because the Nazis had tattooed numbers onto the arms of Jews and others in concentration camps there and nearby. So Barth had to look hard for information. At that time, about 1984, there were only two or three tattoo artists in all of Austria and of course he didn’t really know them.
To try to learn more as he began to develop his own style, improve the quality of his work, and get the proportions right, he was checking out underground stores, looking for tattoo magazines. Barth was heavily into the motorcycle scene at the time, and at 18 he also bought a car. With these two vehicles available, he started to attend bike and car shows where he encountered more and more people with tattoos. He traveled as far as France, slowly expanding his horizons as he met people from different countries.
As he was beginning to be serious about tattooing, he also spent three and a half years after high school at a trade school, where he learned the family business, screen printing. He did this out of respect for his parents, who wanted him to have a proper education that would enable him to eventually take over their company. But once he completed his education, he decided he would become a tattoo artist. "I got a big speech that you can never make a dollar in this business," he says.
But he persevered. In 1989 he traveled to the United States and visited Sailor Bill’s tattoo shop in Orlando, Florida. "I didn’t speak word of English," he says. "I walked into the shop – the first tattoo studio I ever saw in my life – and that’s where I made the call to be a professional." He returned home and opened Custom Tattooing by Mario.
With the reigning distaste about tattoos, it was tough not only to get permission to open a tattoo parlor but also to find someone willing to rent a space to him. He first convinced the authorities that tattooing is just adding pigment in the skin, that it doesn’t alter anything besides visual appearance – except perhaps making someone a bit more of an individual. Barth explains, "The biggest misconception is that people walk into a tattoo shop having gone to college and come out like they’ve had 10 years in prison. They come out as jailbirds."
He also had to promise that the shop wouldn’t become a hangout for ne’er-do-wells and that he would keep the windows covered so no one could see in. Finally he got permission to open, and an open-minded 80-year-old man was enthusiastic about his idea and rented him the 350 square feet he needed to open up.
Although Barth had to keep his windows closed for a long time, eventually his business was accepted as legitimate in his hometown. When the health inspectors started checking out his place, they liked what they saw and started to support him; eventually his parlor became the exemplary tattoo shop and much later his studio was used to create guidelines for regulating tattooing in Austria.
A big turning point for Barth came about 1991 when he attended a tattoo convention in Geneva, in the French part of Switzerland. With him were two customers sporting tattoos he had created. He entered them in the convention’s tattoo competition and won first and third place.
At that convention he was just a visitor and had no booth, but booth holder Johnny Niesten appreciated the distinctiveness of Barth’s work and invited him to share a booth at a convention in Helsinki, Finland, six months later.
So he returned home to prepare work for the next competition. If he had learned one thing talking in Geneva with tattoo artists from different countries, it was the following: "In a room with 25 tattoo artists, the one thing that we have in common is that we compete with one another."
After reading more about how competitions worked, Barth organized a group of people with very specific tattoos to travel with him to Finland, where he won first, second, and third place in every category and received his first Tattoo Artist of the Year award.
He started traveling three or four times a year to competitions in England, Germany, and France and in 1994 finally made it to the most elite show, sponsored by the National Tattoo Association in the United States, which is considered like the Oscars and World Championship in tattooing. He won 12 first-place awards, which left him on the top of his field. He attributes these wins in large part to his very individual style, so different from the traditional, military style in which most American tattoo artists had been educated. "We were blending colors, and we didn’t care what the rules are because we had no rules," he observes.
In any case, this show immediately established him in the United States and worldwide. In 1995 many Americans sought tattoos from Barth, and either traveling to Austria or found him at conventions in the United States. As a result, he decided to spend two to three months at a time in the United States, either at conventions or doing guest spots at high-end studios like Body Graphics in Philadelphia.
When he got so booked that he was already booked for his subsequent visit before the first one was over, he started to think, why even go home?
In 1997 Barth got his first real inside look at how American tattoo studios are run, during a guest spot at Wonderland Tattoo in Detroit. He also helped the owner organize the first Detroit tattoo show, which was a huge success.
Then he got an offer to come to Miami and do a guest spot at Art Attack, which is now Miami Ink, site of a reality show on the Learning Channel. Barth became close friends with the owner, who offered him a business opportunity to open the studio in South Beach, which he did, and the first Starlight Tattoo was born.
Now Barth and his attorneys are exploring a licensing arrangement. But he is proceeding very slowly. His name is his brand, he says, and if one store doesn’t know what it is doing, it could drag down 10 others. "But," he continues, "there’s a fine line. It is a big business that can pay off, because there are no competitors with a similar concept. We are the first."
Barth’s business decisions, though, have not always been driven by money, because his business also means a lot to him personally. For one thing, he has developed "Starting Over," a program that helps former gang members remove or cover tattoos they no longer want to display.
When he moved to New Jersey after he meeting his wife, it got to be hard traveling back and forth, and in 1999 he decided to close the store. Although he might have made a different decision today, he says, at that time it was the right decision for him. "I was too stubborn to sell it," he says. "It was such a baby of mine that I would rather close it down than someone else have it."