BRANDING

King Ink

Tattoos are everywhere. But the tattoo business has yet to outgrow its outlaw roots. Mario Barth aims to change that. His goal: to build the Starbucks of tattoo parlors.
New Jersey Gothic Barth and his muse, Carol, in the lobby of his Rochelle Park shop
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Mario Barth hunches forward in his swivel chair, staring intently at the bicep of a New York Giants lineman named David Diehl. His left hand pulls the man's skin taut, while his right dabs at it with a machine that looks and sounds like a dentist's drill. The dark ink spreads on thick and smooth. Unseen, 15 tiny needles penetrate Diehl's flesh at a rate of 12 times a second. Every half minute or so, Barth wipes off the excess ink with a big piece of gauze and smears petroleum jelly over the area. He then rotates toward a table, wraps a new piece of gauze around his left pinky, takes a dollop of petroleum jelly on his index finger, and once again attacks the man's arm. This goes on for five hours, give or take a few short breaks during which Barth checks his BlackBerry and Diehl checks out the work in a full-length mirror. When it's all over, the 319-pound client is visibly pleased with his new tattoo: a ship's anchor flanked by swallows. "I'll never go to anyone else," he says.

Whatever squeamishness you might have about tattoos, it's difficult to watch this process without feeling moved by the art. A freehand tattoo--that is, one drawn without stencils--is like a live jazz recording, preserving the artist's improvised triumphs and inevitable compromises. Barth describes the craft as spiritually exhilarating. "It's almost like a drug," he says, speaking with just a touch of an Austrian accent. "You're working on somebody for hours, penetrating their skin, hearing their closest stories. The aura is crazy."

A tattoo from Barth, no matter how simple, costs at least $1,500. Most clients wind up paying much, much more. That kind of money has made Barth a rich man. He owns a Lamborghini Gallardo, a 7-Series BMW, a fully restored 1952 Buick Super 8, and a chain of four tattoo shops in northern New Jersey. In the world of tattooing, that makes Barth a mogul. But he wants something more. His BlackBerry is buzzing because Barth is on the verge of something big, that one deal that can change everything. Even as he inks the burly lineman, his thoughts are in Las Vegas, where he hopes to transform his little chain into something else: a household name. If he succeeds, he'll bring business practices that have been commonplace in most companies since the industrial revolution into an industry that often forgets it is one. Barth is ungodly nervous--afraid to even bring up the deal for fear of jinxing it--and rightly so. Nothing this ambitious has been tried in tattooing.

Getting a tattoo once was an act of rebellion. But when an 18-year-old gets inked today, chances are he is motivated as much by the need to conform as the urge to rebel. Walk around an American shopping mall, and you'll see jocks with barbed wire around their biceps and cheerleaders with Chinese characters on their lower backs. Women piloting strollers sport elaborate flowers on their shoulder blades; Harley-Davidson logos--the most commonly tattooed brand--peek out from under the polo shirts of mild-mannered men. A tattoo won't get you kicked out of a restaurant and it won't hurt your chances of landing a job. According to the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds are inked, compared with only 10 percent of their parents' generation. (In 1936, Life magazine estimated that 6 percent of the population had gone under the needle.)

No one knows how big the industry is, but estimates have put the number of tattoo shops somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000. If each of those shops employs a single artist who works 30 hours a week, charging the relatively low price of $100 an hour, tattooing in America is a $2.3 billion business. Yet somehow, entrepreneurs--so adept at capitalizing on countercultural phenomena like hip-hop music and skateboarding--haven't figured out how to play the trend. Twenty years after tattoos truly began to enter the mainstream, the industry remains as fragmented and fiercely anticorporate as ever.

Barth's efforts to change this would seem entirely foolhardy were it not for his reputation as a tattooist. There are perhaps less than 50 others who charge similarly high rates and command such long waiting lists. (Barth's is a year and a half.) Today, Barth is the artist of choice for rock stars--including Lenny Kravitz, Ja Rule, and members of My Chemical Romance--as well as athletes such as Diehl and Jason Kidd. But Barth wants to be more than an artist. Two years ago, he embarked on an ambitious company expansion. He is now the only tattoo artist with studios on both sides of the Atlantic and is one of the largest domestic producers of tattoo ink. Starlight Tattoo and its ancillary businesses employ 30 people and generate $7 million in revenue a year, with an annual growth rate of more than 150 percent.

Now Barth is doubling down, planning an ambitious new studio in Las Vegas that aims squarely at the white-collar mainstream. The new Starlight Tattoo will be located in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, one of the world's largest hotels and winner of the Meeting News Planner's Choice award for three of the past four years. It will be the fanciest tattoo parlor ever built--and Barth says it's only the beginning. He envisions shops in every major world city--Tokyo, Beijing, Milan, Barcelona, Berlin, Los Angeles, and more. The shops will be what Starbucks is to coffee: pleasant, reliable, and ubiquitous. They'll boast world-class artists--many of whom now travel to Barth's New Jersey locations as guests--and they'll be run by the people Barth has spent the past few years training. When he's really dreaming, Barth imagines a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars and a tattoo industry that has been fully redeemed as the prodigal son of the business community.

If entrepreneurial ambition was late in coming for the 41-year-old Barth, his ability as an artist seems to date from the womb. Tattooists often talk about having received their calling at a very young age, sketching dragons on their arms while the other kids did their math homework, and Barth is no exception. He executed his first tattoo at age 12--poking a black skull onto the back of a friend's hand using a sewing needle and India ink. His parents wouldn't let him near a needle for the next five years, but Barth was hooked. At 17, he began tattooing friends, and at 23 he opened a shop in his hometown of Graz, Austria, the first legal tattoo studio in the country since World War II.

Barth began traveling to the United States in the early 1990s, staying in Ponca, Nebraska (population: 1,046), where his father owned a screen-printing company. The location, surprisingly, was a good one for a budding tattooist--a manageable drive from almost any tattoo show in the country. Barth would hit the road on a Thursday, rent a booth in Kansas City, or Reno, or wherever the show was that weekend. He'd tattoo dozens of people, talk to the magazine writers, and enter the tattoo competitions, which do not award cash prizes but are essential for young artists who hope to gain a following and get hired by a good shop. His drives took him to the Grand Canyon, to Red Rocks, and to New York City's Lower East Side. He won nearly every award at the National Tattoo Association's conventions--the Oscars of tattooing--from 1991 to 1994. He left Austria for good in 1995.

After a brief stint at a studio outside of Detroit, Barth opened his first American shop, Starlight Tattoo, in Miami's South Beach. Tattoo enthusiasts soon were flying to Miami to get inked. They were drawn by Barth's distinctive style, characterized by fine lines and a willingness to put bright colors right next to one another, rather than separating them with bold black lines. "There had been this idea in tattooing: 'If it's bold it will hold.' Barth broke that tradition," says Jean-Chris Miller, creative director of Art & Ink, publisher of the magazines Skin Art, Tattoos for Men, and Tattoo Revue.

Barth liked Florida, and probably would have stayed there forever had it not been for a chance encounter on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1997. He was at a gas station, sipping a Sunny Delight, when he met Carol Cirignano. She was blond, curvy, and tattooed. He asked her to dinner, and at the end of the evening, invited her to come home to live with him. "Here's the deal," Barth recalls saying. "I'm going to Florida tomorrow and if you want to come down, I'll send you a ticket." Three days later, one-way ticket in hand, Cirignano flew to Miami and moved in. (They married in 2001.) Barth was just as impetuous when Cirignano asked him to move back to New Jersey with her, a mere six months after they met. He obliged, quickly opening a shop in Fairlawn, near Cirignano's mother's house. The store was styled as an outpost where clients could scope out designs before flying to Miami to get inked--a ruse designed to get around a local ban on tattoo shops. (Barth convinced the town council to overturn the law and began tattooing clients in Fairlawn several months later.)

Barth assumed that he could operate the two shops simultaneously. But the Miami store struggled. Rather than relying on foot traffic, it was a destination shop, with Barth as the draw. The tattooists he employed were unreliable. And they had little if any incentive to behave differently.

Tattoo artists are traditionally paid strictly on commission--generally 40 percent of the tattoo's price tag. Benefits like health insurance are unheard of. With no formal training mechanism, young tattooists are at the mercy of a closed society of masters. There are far more aspiring apprentices than there are apprenticeships, which are either unpaid or require the apprentices to pay for the privilege.

Even employers who want to be more conscientious have a tough time. Most shop owners have a full schedule of appointments in addition to their managerial duties. Michelle Myles, who owns two of New York City's best-known studios, DareDevil and FunCity, spends 30 hours a week tattooing and employs no professional managers. The only nontattooists in the shop work the cash register and sweep the floors--and even these kids are doing it in the hope that she may one day agree to apprentice them. "Artists don't like working for people who don't tattoo," says Myles. "It's not like a hair salon--it's not like anything else. Your business depends on these people who don't want to do anything but tattooing. And if they're unhappy, they can just walk around the corner and work somewhere else."

As Barth struggled to be in two places at once, he became convinced that the Miami studio was more trouble than it was worth. In 1998, he shut it down and convinced his three artists to move up to New Jersey. Unfortunately, the Jersey shop was too small for four full-time artists, leaving Barth with the unpleasant choice of laying someone off or cutting back everyone's hours. (He chose the latter.) He was happy to be in New Jersey, excited about building a life with Carol. But he couldn't help but feel that he was treading water as a businessman. He hated the fact that after luring his artists north, he couldn't provide them with full-time work. At the same time, he was tired of the hassles of managing artists. If he ever hoped to turn his art into a real business, he'd need tattooists who didn't require constant supervision.

Suddenly, Barth recognized that the problems were connected. "I thought," he says, "Why don't I train them to think like owners?"

Most entrepreneurs and management experts would consider this a no-brainer. Yet in the proudly backward world that is the tattoo industry, the notion of asking artists to worry about something as obvious as customer service--or showing up on time--seems like insanity. Despite the ubiquity of tattoos, the tattoo industry is still dominated by individual shops with one or two artists. And no one has had the appetite or the ability to pull a Howard Schultz and successfully consolidate. Most tattooists will talk your ear off about tattooing as art, but when you ask them about the business, they get cagey. Chris Nuñez, who co-owns the shop that serves as the setting for the TLC reality television show Miami Ink, says he doesn't think of himself as a boss. His partner on the show, Ami James, says, "I hate the corporate world more than anybody." That's strange talk from two guys who star in a reality TV show and who have subsequently opened a bar, a custom motorcycle shop, and a clothing line. Indeed, ask anyone in the industry if mainstream business practices could be brought to bear on tattooing, and they'll say the same things: No way. Never gonna happen. "That'll be the end of it," says Nuñez.

But Barth found himself wondering whether that had to be the case. "The tattoo industry hasn't grown to a level where it understands business concepts--yet," Barth says. Beginning in 2000, he announced that any Starlight artist could get paid a small base salary plus a commission and join the payroll. It didn't go over well. Artists worried about reporting income to the IRS and chafed at the very idea of being anyone's employee. "Everybody is so used to this being a cash business," says Frank Mazzara, who nonetheless decided to take Barth's offer. His peers' skepticism changed several years later when Mazzara, now 40 and married with a 4-year-old son, was able to get a mortgage and buy a house. His colleagues, many of whom couldn't even qualify for an auto loan, were stunned.

By 2004, all of Barth's 10 employees were officially on the payroll. Barth then purchased health and vision insurance policies and established a 401(k) plan with a 4 percent match. Barth also instituted twice-monthly meetings to discuss Starlight's business practices and plans for the future. The meetings are held every other Saturday morning. Before each, Barth announces an unusual start time, say 8:47 a.m., in order to encourage timeliness and make the meeting harder to forget about. The gatherings are designed to help artists get a handle on the business, in the hope that they can one day run Starlight locations of their own as the company grows.

The goal of all this, of course, is retention. Like all employers, Barth wants to create an environment that will discourage people from going elsewhere. "Artists don't think of it as a real job," he says, "and if you keep it that way--if you just pay them a percentage and they have no health insurance or benefits or profit sharing--sooner or later they're going to make a misstep," like skipping town or using drugs. In other words, help the tattooists get mortgages and retirement plans--that is, give them an incentive to stay employed--and you'll take the biggest risk out of the business.

Even as he was transforming his business on the inside, Barth also was working to clean up tattooing's image among outsiders. Somewhat counterintuitively, he's done it by opening shops in municipalities where tattooing has been illegal and battling the town council when it seeks to shut him down. (Tattooing was banned throughout much of the United States during the 1960s, following a hepatitis scare.) "Being first in the town gives me an edge from the beginning," Barth says. "First, because you are the only person in the town, and second, because you gain a lot of credibility in the community by making your case." His argument boils down to an old-fashioned straw man: the specter of an underaged girl with a terrible tattoo and a hepatitis infection. "Listen," Barth will say, "if you ban tattooing, you push it underground and risk your kid's health. Why wouldn't you want it done where you have proper training, proper location, and proper recordkeeping?" It hasn't always worked: Barth was forced to shut down a studio in Newark in 1999 when the city invoked a 1961 law and rescinded his construction permit. (Barth appealed the decision and the law was eventually ruled unconstitutional by a state judge.) But over the next five years, he became the first tattooist in the townships of Paterson and Rochelle Park.

By early 2005, Barth had three profitable shops, 14 employees, and sales of $2.5 million. It was time to truly put his plan to the test. He purchased another shop--a studio in the small town of Pequonnok--and announced that he would be tattooing exclusively in Rochelle Park, leaving the other shops to run on their own. "I had been moving around to keep control," he says. "But if you restrict your people too much, you restrict their potential to grow."

Meanwhile, Barth started thinking about building an infrastructure that could sustain a much larger enterprise. He hired an IT consultant to create centralized appointment, inventory, and payroll systems. His last, and perhaps most dramatic, move involved ink. Like many artists Barth had long mixed his own pigments, but it occurred to him that he could apply the same marketing strategy that had helped him win over small town councils to the ink business. Lots of tattoo companies made ink that was safe, but no one marketed it that way. In the summer of 2005, he leased a warehouse in Hackensack, built a bottling plant, and began subjecting his inks to rigorous pathogen testing and sterilization. Intenze Inks--tag line: "Your safety is our priority"--is now a $3.8 million operation. Intenze Inks come in 54 colors and cost about the same as nonsterilized inks: A package containing a bottle of every color, including "dark chocolate," "Kool Aid," and "Mario's Blue," goes for $1,000; individual four-ounce bottles, which typically last a month or two, sell for roughly $20. They are packed on a tidy production line that consists of a half-dozen employees who hand-fill and pack 3,500 bottles a day for shipment all over the world. And Barth's studios are guaranteed a low-cost, reliable source of ink.

Barth's office is housed in a low-slung building in a gritty section of Hackensack. It has two windows, one looking onto the street, the other onto the floor of the bottling plant. He monitors the studios via webcam feeds on his computer monitor, and keeps tabs on the world at large with a giant plasma television that is perennially tuned to Bloomberg TV with the sound off. A typical day looks something like this: He arrives at Starlight's headquarters at 8 a.m., an hour before his staff does. He e-mails with suppliers and clients, watches the news, and plans his day. He's at the office until 12:30 p.m., when he leaves for the studio, where he inks clients until 6 or 7. He's back to the office by 7:30 and home by 9. After his wife and son are in bed, he'll often stay up until 3 working on his laptop. "I just don't need a lot of sleep," he says, as he sips black coffee from a Styrofoam cup that is refreshed periodically by an assistant.

Around the same time he was building the ink business, Barth began thinking about something few tattooists seem to consider: the customer experience. "Most people are intimidated when they walk into a tattoo shop," he says. "But if the customer is not comfortable, he's not telling you truthfully what he wants, which means he's not getting what he wants." Make customers feel good about their tattoos--rather than bullied--and they're far more likely to come back for more. "It's how you greet the customer when he walks in," Barth says. "It's how you pick up the phone and it's the music that's played in the stores. I bet you that in 95 percent of the stores you're going to hear death metal, when you want music that relaxes you." His shops play R & B and soul.

Barth says that he tries to make his shops feel like doctors' offices in order to assuage clients' fears about disease transmission. But that description doesn't do them justice. Although the Rochelle Park shop does indeed have drab white rooms that seem vaguely medical, its most striking feature is the lobby. The space is overcrowded with art and tattooing trophies, making it feel like the rec room of the world's most dedicated tattooing fan. The impression is reinforced by the proliferation of chairs and barstools, which make it a rather pleasant place to spend an afternoon. Barth says that's the point and credits Starbucks with the inspiration. "There's a big thing in tattoo shops: They want to get you in and get you out," he says. "We invite people to come back." Adds Jason Sall, who apprenticed with Barth in 2000 and now works as a staff tattooist in Belleville: "I don't want to say that we're corporate because that's a bad word. But we're very business-oriented."

Earlier this year, Barth opened his first new shop outside New Jersey, in the southern Spanish town of Malaga. But Starlight's future really depends on what happens in Las Vegas. After tattooing Diehl, Barth and a lawyer flew out to America's playground. They brought with them a signed contract to open a Starlight Tattoo inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. They'd planned to deliver it to the hotel's president, Bill Hornbuckle, but instead were asked to meet with the vice president of sales, who politely informed Barth that the hotel was rethinking the proposal and had decided to put it on hold. Barth walked out of the meeting stunned. A year's work was down the drain. "It was unreal," he says. "But there was no possibility in my mind that we would not have a store."

When he returned home, he immediately sent a gift basket with a note suggesting they might find another location within the hotel. That led to a face-to-face meeting with Hornbuckle several months later. "I got about five minutes," says Barth, "and I gave my best Donald Trump spiel: our white-collar, high-end tattooing philosophy." Hornbuckle was impressed. "The brand fit for us was fairly easy," he says. "Simply walk around the hotel and you will see many of our customers with tattoos." They landed on a new idea: to build adjacent to the House of Blues Las Vegas, a Mandalay Bay tenant that does $43 million a year in revenue hosting concerts and corporate events. The sixth Starlight Tattoo will be accessible, via a VIP entrance, to House of Blues guests--so that concert attendees (and performers) can get inked before or after a show. Barth signed a lease agreement with the hotel and a co-branding agreement with House of Blues parent LiveNation in July. Construction of the 1,800-square-foot store began shortly thereafter.

When the shop opens on Super Bowl weekend next February, Barth says, he will have spent more than $1 million getting it off the ground. But because of the heavy foot traffic, he believes that the single location easily could double the revenue of his other five. Rates will be comparable to what staff artists charge in New Jersey--between $100 and $300 an hour. "Obviously, the thinking is that if this works, it makes sense to open up in other locations down the road," says Greg Encinas, general manager of the House of Blues Las Vegas. If that happens, Barth is ready. "I've got six people ready to take over and manage their own stores," he says.

Barth often casts his life as a struggle for legitimacy: first as tattooist in Austria, then as an artist in America, and finally as a businessman. He's proud of the fact that he owns his company outright with no debt and that he tattoos businessmen and celebrities and actors. He's proud of his IT infrastructure, his OSHA compliance, and his Social Security payments--in short, of everything that makes Starlight Tattoo a mainstream business. While the idea of creating a Starbucks-like chain of studios may illicit snorts from most tattooists, Barth embraces the comparison. "I admire Starbucks," he says. "It's a great company with a great structure, great management, and a great concept. I like how Howard Schultz branded it in such a short time and that he owns most of his stores."

That a tattooist can say this without shame is amazing in itself. That Barth is saying it is a mark of how far he's come. He's gone from being a roving artist to a being married father. Barth may not succeed in taking tattooing corporate--or in keeping tattooing authentic, for that matter--but his fearlessness is admirable. Here is a born artist who decided to be a businessman and picked the toughest business he could find. When I suggest that he may be attempting the impossible, there's an uncomfortable pause: "But I am known to do the impossible." He says it slowly, with the self-assuredness of a man stating the obvious.

Max Chafkin is an Inc. staff writer.

Are you inked?

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IMAGE: Brian Finke
Last updated: Nov 1, 2007




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