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Talking art, commitment and legal niceties at the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth

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Mario Barth’s Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth brought 1,000 tattoo artists to the Strip.
Photo: Jacob Kepler
Rick Lax

A tall brunette in a short red dress walked toward me. Most of her skin was exposed, but there was no ink on it. What’s she doing here? Is she media? Is she lost?

The woman walked past me, and I saw that her upper back was covered in tattoos—big, fauvist, Amazing Technicolor Dreamtattoos. They covered every visible square inch and spilled onto the back of her neck. Guess she’s at the right place, after all.

Talking Tats

The Rumjungle DJ took to the mic and shouted into it, “Mario came to town, and he brought 50,000 tattooed motherf--kers with him!”

Everybody cheered.

The DJ was referring to celebrated tattoo artist Mario Barth and his “Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth,” which took place at Mandalay Bay last weekend. (1) I’ll admit it: When I first walked into Mandalay Bay’s Convention Center, I felt intimidated … and very, very naked. I mean, even when I’m naked, I don’t feel that naked. See, I don’t have any tattoos, and everybody else in sight did—gothic tattoos, Chinese tattoos, Japanese tattoos, Celtic tattoos, Samoan tattoos. The few visibly non-inked patrons were at least wearing tattoo-inspired T-shirts: Affliction, Hyperspace Studios, Ed Hardy. (2)

Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth: Red Carpet

I chatted with Barth about those brands and about the artists who’ve tried to cross in the other direction—from the world of art to the world of tattoos. Here’s what he had to say:

“When a painter tries to cross over to the tattoo industry, he runs into problems. You can’t paint over, you can’t touch up, and every person is a different canvas. Artists aren’t used to that, and 95 percent of them fail. But on the opposite side, when a tattoo artist goes over to the art world, he often has enormous success. Christian Audigier and Guy Aitchison are great examples of this.”

Audigier and Aitchison (and Barth) are largely responsible for tattoo imagery’s recent pop-cultural boost, but, Barth reminded me, slipping on an Ed Hardy shirt does not a tattoo aficionado make; the real tattoo lifestyle requires more effort:

“If you see somebody with full sleeves,” (3) Barth said, “you know he’s been around for a while and lives a certain lifestyle—distinctive, visual. The sleeves can take 70 to 100 hours. It depends on how long a person can sit.”

“What’s the longest session you’ve ever done?” I asked.

“Do you think people who get big tattoos like that are better with commitment than others?” I asked Barth.

“I once tattooed somebody for 21 hours straight. I did a Viking woman’s head across this guy’s rib cage, and he had to catch a flight back to Australia, so it was a race against the clock.”

What impresses me most about Barth’s Australian customer isn’t his Mick Foleyan pain tolerance, it’s his commitment. When you pay somebody to tattoo a Viking woman across your rib cage, you’re not only saying to the world, I like Viking women, but you’re also saying to yourself, I’m confident I will like Viking women until the day I die. And that, in my opinion, is real commitment. Law school, home ownership, marriage—that stuff’s for rookies.

“You mean romantic commitment?”

Tattoo artists from all around the world attended the convention.

“Sure; do you think they’re more monogamous?”

“I know that I’m all over the world, but I wear my wedding band every night. And my wife’s on my forearm. So, yes, we might be better with commitment—I can see that.”

Tattooed Kalamazoo couple Amy and Max Beers could probably see it too. Back in Michigan, they’ve got a tattoo parlor … and a 4-year-old. Max’s tattoos, by the way, go across his forehead and cheeks; Amy’s run along her scalp. When I approached their booth, Max was tattooing “PINK” onto some lady’s calf.

“So,” I said to the lady, “you’re a big Pink fan?” (4)

“I like that she’s herself,” the woman responded. “I think she’d be an awesome person to hang out with. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, you know? She’s not like Britney or Christina.”

In having “PINK” tattooed on her calf, this lady was not only demonstrating pain tolerance and commitment, but she was also demonstrating faith—faith that Pink won’t release a string of crappy albums, faith that Pink won’t say something bigoted on live TV, faith that Pink won’t start hanging out with Britney and Christina.

The Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth

If any of that were to happen, this poor lady would have to change her tattoo … but what could she change it to? PINKY FINGER? PINKEYE? PINKING SHEARS? Could this lady pull a Johnny Depp and chop off a letter (5), shortening PINK to the self-referential “INK”?

Tattoo cover-ups and alterations are difficult, but not impossible—this according to tattoo artist Robbie Rittenhouse, who told me he once transformed a Satan face into a Jesus face for some born-again Christian. Said he covered the horns up with a crown of thorns.

Rittenhouse, like Beers, Barth and a lot of the guys at the convention, is covered in tattoos. As I said, these guys intimidated me at first, but only at first. They were all very nice to me. In fact, I only met one unfriendly guy at the convention, and he didn’t even have any tattoos.

He was a lawyer.

A woman gets ink at the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth.

Now, I’m a lawyer too, and after I revealed this to the guy, we struck up a legal conversation about the tattoo industry. He mentioned a particular piece of state legislation that interested me, so I pulled out my laptop and asked him to tell me more about it so I could include it in my story. He said that he didn’t want to be interviewed (and didn’t want to be identified), so I put my laptop away (and won’t describe his appearance).

“I’m a lawyer,” he said. “You can’t be interviewing me. And if you’re really a lawyer too, you should know that. You should know better.”

Attendees at this year's Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth included those getting tattoos and those who just wanted to watch masters at work.

I couldn’t remember learning about any rule that says journalists can’t interview lawyers (6), but I also didn’t want to start a fight with this guy, so I shook his hand, wished him good afternoon and began to walk away. Before I got too far, he said this to me: “You behave yourself, now—I’m being serious.”

I don’t know what he meant by that, but I know it sounded like a threat. So, to review, the one intimidating guy at the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth turned out to be the guy without any tattoos. Rittenhouse, Beers and Barth were all total gentlemen. Maybe it’s time to update my stereotypes.

1 The name is not hyperbolic; Barth’s show featured 760 booths; the previous tattoo show booth record was 200 and change.

2 The people at Barth’s tattoo convention weren’t wearing Ed Hardy shirts because they thought it was trendy; they were wearing Ed Hardy shirts because they liked them.

3 Somebody whose arms are completely covered in tattoos.

4 Easily the dumbest question I’ve asked anyone since I began writing for Las Vegas Weekly.

5 After he broke up with Winona Ryder, Depp had “WINONA FOREVER” changed into “WINO FOREVER.”

6 What I do remember is that my professional-responsibility professor brought to class Dominic Gentile, the attorney involved in the landmark Supreme Court case that dealt with what an attorney can and cannot say to the press, Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030. I remember Gentile’s guest lecture about this very topic. Basically, Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.6 forbids attorneys from making certain extrajudicial statements when a lawyer is participating in (or has participated in) a trial or investigation.

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