ROCHELLE PARK, N.J. — Very few people have the luxury of calling an array of top celebrities their good friends. Mario Barth is one of them. As one of the world’s leading tattoo artists, Barth has risen to the status of choice celebrity tattoo artist, on call for some of the world’s most famous stars to ink their skin. When Lenny Kravitz wants a tattoo, he calls Mario. When Snoop Dogg or Jim Jones want some new ink, he’s their right-hand man.
Barth came from a small town in Austria, only minutes away from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hometown, before soaring to the upper echelon of the trade through word of mouth and tattoo magazine exposure. He had little but a tattoo machine and enough money to open its first legal tattoo studio.
Since opening nearly 20 years ago, Barth has risen to high-class status. Today, his exclusive services include in-flight tattooing on private jets, and a private limousine escort to and from the airport whenever a celebrity decides to “drop by" Barth’s flagship studio — Starlight Tattoo, in Rochelle Park, NJ — for some skin art. His client list includes: Nikki Sixx, of Motley Crue; Gene Simmons, of Kiss; Vanilla Ice and various members of My Chemical Romance, Panic! At the Disco, Taking Back Sunday, KoRn and more.
Speaking in a low-key, laid back Austrian accent, it all seems to be no big deal. He’s even got the luxury of endearing some of his hottest clients: Dave Diehl, star lineman for the New York Giants, is simply “Davy,” while rap star Jim Jones, is “Jimmy.” He boasts an arsenal of nearly 300 tattoo awards and a clientele that has kept him booked solid for over 20 years. Barth has undoubtedly seen all sides of the big picture of today’s tattoo industry.
Tell me about life in Austria as an up-and-coming tattoo artist, back when there was no Miami Ink.
Talk about a generation difference; when I was just starting out, tattooing was REALLY in the underground. I actually opened the first and only legal shop in Austria. At that time, tattooing was a different enemy. People we tattooed were either criminals or prison guards, and there was absolutely no "regular person." They were all just really specific, heavy subcultures. This was our clientele. It only shifted in the early 90s, when it became more open.
How did you manage to build up such a solid reputation?
When I opened the first legal shop in Austria in 1989, it got enormous exposure from TV and newspapers, and automatically I attracted people who would have otherwise been afraid to come in. I started to attract this totally different crowd, and then all of a sudden MTV came. But it was really the tattoo magazines that did it; when people started recognizing my work, they started publishing it in the magazines. Then in 1994, I won the Best Tattoo Artist award from the National Tattoo Association in San Francisco. I won 11 different best artist trophies that year, which had never been done at that time. It was also different back then if you had a studio, or if you had no studio; if you worked in a basement, you were going to attract a basement kind of crowd. That’s how word got around.
What made you move to the U.S?
At that time, I had the biggest reputation that you could get, and then from one day to another, I starting having clients fly into Austria to get tattooed. I even had people from Australia come in. Then it became a natural instinct; you know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the river. I come from little Austria with only seven million people, so why not go to big America? It was actually a pretty big jump, because I had a really secure living there, but I figured I’d see what happens here. I worked a little at Wonderland Tattoo in Detroit, where I started out guest spotting. From there, I moved down to Miami, which, of course, attracted the right clientele. From that moment on, it started to come. When I moved to Jersey, my clients followed me, and many of them still fly in today.
Why do celebrities choose you?
With me, I think it was just the right timing, the right moment. They choose me now because of my personality: I’m flexible, I’m very professional and I’m always there. I was always known to be very quiet about it, and I guess that got out and I accumulated clients. I started out having a lot of celebrity clients when I was younger and I just really didn’t care. For me, it’s like dealing with a regular client, that’s the good part. I would treat Lenny Kravitz the same way I’d treat you, that’s just how I am. I think most of them just want to be treated like normal human beings. I actually had a funny situation when I tattooed Lenny for the first time – I didn’t even know it was him. I was tattooing him and we were having a good conversation and then my other artist asked me if I knew who he has, and I said, "No, and I don’t care." I think that’s why celebrities look for me. I try to treat them like regular people. But we also have special services because we know how valuable they can be. Catering to celebrities, you need to understand that their time is very valuable. And this is where it makes the difference for us. We give you the service, but we don’t treat you differently, it’s a very fine line.
When celebrities get bigheaded, do you ever play it down?
Absolutely, I don’t care about that. Over the years I learned that all my clients have the same value. One [celebrity] client wanted me to tattoo him and asked me to come to his house because he didn’t want to be in the shop. So I refused that. What makes you different that I should cancel an appointment with a client waiting here just to come to your house to tattoo you? Especially if it’s a person who has saved all their money to get tattooed and makes it on their spare time. When I started to understand that part it became very easy for me to deal with those situations, because now I just treat everybody equally, whether they’re celebrities or not. It’s also a hard situation with people who think they’re celebrities. Sometimes, it’s tougher to deal with the people who are just coming up rather then with people who have been at the top of the game for a long time.
Tell me about some of your special services for celebrities.
There’s a new in-flight tattooing program we just started. What’s basically happening here is that we made a merger with Revolution Air, which is a privately owned company that flies a really high-end clientele. We made a deal with them in which we are basically getting their heavy jets to offer a service now to celebrities who are maybe flying from here to L.A. and have 5 hours to kill, and want to get tattooed. So we’re actually going to go on board with them and work on them in-flight. It’s mainly about us offering special services to our clients. Their real value is time. Celebrities rarely have the time to come into the shop, it’s very hard for them, so it’s a form of special service we offer. Celebrities all travel on private jets now, so here, we actually would have 5 hours of privacy, and if you could have that session, it’d be great. We’re getting great feedback from it.
Is it difficult to accommodate celebrities?
Oh yeah. Just getting them here from the airport takes 2 hours. People are just star-struck. We usually just try to hide them out down here. If you go out on Route 17, it’s like half of New Jersey is going to know they’re there. For a celebrity to come into the shop is tough; we have back entrances and private booths, but somehow people still seem to find out about somebody coming in. When we had Korn here, it took about 10 minutes for it to get out, and then once people found out, they started pouring in. For me, as a celebrity tattoo artist, I deal with celebrities all day, but the "regular" person will find out and calls his friend, his mother, et cetera, and it gets crazy. When you get a tattoo, you want to be quiet, be in a good mood, you want to chill with the artist. If I always had a camera around me, or people in my face I’d be pretty cranky. It’s the part that comes with the celebrity. They just have different lifestyles, and they can’t move around freely. We’ve seen situations where people want to come in, but they really cant. If they arrive in an airport, 4,000 people automatically recognize them. It’s not that easy.
How did you feel about breaking into the circle of celebrities as just a regular tattoo artist?
When I first started I got really excited when I got more and more clients, and when I saw that more and more people liked my work. I got a kick out of it. [As an artist], when you get your first celebrity client it’s really big, because it brings you outside of your little circle. It gives you that feeling that you’ve taken it somewhere from the underground to the TV screen. Celebrities are almost in this big fantasy world that’s going on, and when you see this person walking into your life, it’s actually a big boost for your ego. But I found out the other side about celebrities, too. Many of them just want to get stuff for free; they feel entitled because they’re this big monstrous person walking in and the whole world is supposed to stand still.
Does your celebrity work score some points with your regular clientele?
I think that for the "regular" clients to get work done by someone who tattoos celebrities, for some reason, it makes it a status symbol. I think it’s the hype of the media. Everything is so geared toward Hollywood and flashy cars and stuff. So when you bring that reputation with you, it gives you more credibility with your clientele.
Do you have any favorite celebrity clients?
Nikki Sixx (Motley Crue) is great. Fieldy and Jonathan Davis (Korn) are also really cool. I basically click with anyone who’s down to earth. The mood (Sixx) sets is just great. What I look for in celebrities is how they interact with normal people. I can tell if they’re really cool with people. Nikki gives every single minute to everybody. When he was in here he talked to everybody like he knew them for 50 years. Most celebrities are cool but he just had that special edge.
Who’s the next celebrity client on your agenda?
Jonathan Davis is coming in. We’re organizing the schedule for him. We’re having our own limo driver coming to pick him up from the airport in an unmarked private limo. There are no outside sources, so nobody should know that he’s here. That’s where the special service part comes in.
In general, tattooing is a pretty intimidating business. After all this time do you ever still get freaked out about it?
It’s been 30 years and I can walk into a brand new tattoo studio where I don’t know anybody it’s still like, "What am I going to see behind that door? 4 rotweillers and a guy standing there with a shotgun?" It’s almost like you open a big dangerous gift box. But that’s the plague of tattooing. This is never going to change. There’s a certain edge that keeps it that way.
What distinguishes you and your studio from other tattoo artists and their studios?
I think that other tattoo artists all specialize in one field, either in colors, or portraits. The versatility of my work was what was different, when I won best realistic, and also best color. People wondered how it was possible. When I retired from competition in 1998 I had 250-300 trophies. I also have all the top cats from Europe come here to work for a while as guest spots. And I’m connected deeply with artists from the Orient. They actually fly out from Japan to work here. I like crossing over, and I like to bring cultures together. Tattooing is a huge field that’s also very small. There are so many different cultural styles, but it’s all somehow a part of the tattoo family. I really try to cross the bridge. I’m also in the business now almost 30 years. So people know I’m not going anywhere. We’re not a shop that’s here today and gone tomorrow. People know we have a 30-year history.
Who inspires you artistically?
Almost everybody. It’s a hard question because there are so many good artists out there. There are so many good ones out in the woods that we don’t even know about yet. Even my apprentice influences me. I like anyone who can really work. I was never too good to appreciate good work. I’m very open like that. I’m also influenced by almost everybody who does something different. I couldn’t say that I have one specific hero.
Do you have any favorite style of tattooing? Color? Black and Gray? Portraits?
A lot of stuff that people say that’s not possible. How I really started to surface was actually being known as a very heavy color tattooist. When people told me back in the day that I couldn’t really make a nice blue in the skin, I did an entire back piece all in blue. I started to prove people wrong. I even have my own color today called "Mario Blue". From that point, I liked the challenge. Also, I like doing cover-ups where )customers) tell me that they’ve been in 14 different shops and [the artists] said that they couldn’t do it. So I said, "Okay, lets make a yellow dragon over it." Lately, I’ve gotten into really detailed portraits. It’s just a new phase that I’m trying to explore. I’m also heavily influenced by Japanese tattooing. There’s nothing more impressive than a well-layed out Japanese body suit.
Has tattooing taught you a thing or two about life?
As an artist you connect with almost every single person who comes in. Sometimes we have a hard time charging people, because [a customer will] come in three or four times and we become very close. If I would do everything by myself, I would never get paid again. Tattooing brought me to so many different places, shown me so many different lifestyles, and connected me with so many different people from so many walks of life. And I didn’t only meet them, but I heard their story – that’s the biggest thing. I had talks with people who were in prison for 20 years, and people who make millions of dollars a month. And after 30 years, you learn that all the stories are the same, it’s just a different value line. You get very humble after a while. You learn that everybody struggles, and everybody makes their life. I think it made me very open-minded. I came from a little country of several million people, so if you think about it, I didn’t really have that many different kinds of personalities or lifestyles in my society. It still is a learning experience, even today. Everyday it’s a new person, new skin, a new design, a new story and a new encounter. It’s a never-ending learning experience. I sometimes feel bad for people who sit in front of a computer all day and experience the same thing everyday. Once I even worked on a psychiatrist who called me to get tattooed and talk in order blow off his problems.
What are the downsides to tattooing?
It is something that’s irreversible. What in the beginning is just something cool to do becomes a challenge not to fuck up. In the beginning you don’t think of that so much, because you just feel it’s the cool thing to do. When you start learning the trade, you realize that every mark you do is permanent, and your brain is then marked forever. One day you’ll wake up and you’ll realize that every mark you make is irreversible and then your whole life changes. If you’re a real tattoo artist, I can tell you what the scenario is like: you’re probably single, not married, and you have troubles in relationships. [Tattooing] is very eccentric. Twenty-four hours a day, [artists] have only one thing to do: tattoo. And the only thing they have to think about when they’re done is what they have tomorrow, and they know that they can’t fuck up tomorrow. There’s a constant pressure of being perfect, but there is no perfect. I search for the perfect tattoo everyday, and when I think I have it, it’s gone. That’s the downside. You’re going to be spending 24 hours a day on tattooing. You work during the day and at night, constantly. You have to work when your client is ready for you. It will consume your whole life. Never being accepted as an artist is a downside too, but who decides anyway? Most artists known today as the biggest and most influential artists in the world never considered themselves artists. There’s a lot of mental pressure these days about not being accepted. I know tattooists who are afraid to say what they do for a living.
Wow. So what’s the good part?
Meeting different people. Also, the success you feel after seeing the happiness of the client; it feeds off to you. Constantly being forced to create new things is great, too. The possibilities of traveling are wonderful. I tell all my apprentices that when they’re finished here, they can go anywhere in the world and survive there. That’s the ultimate thrill. You can actually break language barriers with your work, because everyone understands the meaning of a tattoo, anywhere from here, to Japan, to Russia and to Europe.
Any final words?
It doesn’t matter which rank you come from, which society level you come out of, or which country you’re from, if you get in that tattoo chair, it’s all the same. It hurts you the same that it does me. This connection is the nice part. As soon as you get in my chair, you’re like everybody else.