Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
Art met spectacle over the weekend at the 2012 Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth, presented by renowned tattoo artist Mario Barth at the Mirage. Now in its fourth year, the event is, as its name implies, the world’s largest skin and body modification convention, drawing more than 1,000 of the world’s top tattoo artists and a crowd of over 40,000.
This year marked the first that the event was open to the public, packing the convention floor with professionals, enthusiasts and newcomers eager to talk shop or simply get some ink done.
“It used to be that tattoos were used to show you belonged to a group in some way,” says Barth, who has been tattooing for 30 years and whose clients include Lenny Kravitz, Tommy Lee and Usher (Barth runs his King Ink at the Mirage). "Now it’s shifted, the tattoo is used to adorn the body to make yourself completely unique. And it’s people who have no tattoos at all, newcomers who come in and want something specific, to be recognizable as an individual.”
Other aspects of tattoo culture showcased at the convention included technological innovations, artwork concepts and non-Western tattooing traditions like Samoan tatau and Japanese tebori. From the trends to the techniques, here’s a look at what was on display:
Technique: Samoan tatau
The buzzing electric machine that tattooing usually conjures up is just one of the techniques presented at the convention.
Samoan tatau -- named for the tapping sound it creates, and from which the word tattoo derives -- is noted for its delicate, linear and highly symbolic designs.
The traditional art form has been passed from father to son within historic Samoan tattooing clans using the same tapping technique practiced for thousands of years. The process requires at least two people to perform, and uses a needle plate placed on the skin and tapped in rhythm to create a design.
"It's a unique style with a lot of symbolism, so every tattoo can be read. Every tattoo tells a story about where that person is from, what his job is, about his life,” Barth says.
Technique: Japanese tebori
Master artist Horitoshi 1 was in high demand at the convention -- his fourth -- for his use of tebori, a hand tattooing technique renowned for its the subtle shading and gradations of tone that are difficult to achieve with an electric machine.
"This was a huge achievement for us to bring him over to the States because he never tattooed anywhere outside Tokyo,” Barth says. "Now he’s doing it with the general public, and he enjoys that because it’s a good cultural bridge. It’s really, really important.”
Horitoshi’s unique mastery of color and technique makes his appearance at the convention a once-a-year opportunity for many of his clients to have tattoos completed or touched up.
If you’ve ever seen tebori, which is performed with an abrupt digging motion into the skin, you’ll probably remember how extremely painful it looks. As it turns out, tebori is far gentler than a machine.
"It doesn’t hurt that much in general. I’d say 30 to 40 percent less than compared to the machines. It feels more like acupuncture. It’s more steady, and you can control the pressure,” says tattoo artist Horitaka of the Horitoshi family.
"Some people think tattoos are hardcore, like you see a gangster movie and they’re screaming when they get a tattoo. Most of my clients take a nap when I give tattoos. It’s that kind of painful.”
According to Barth, the enhancement of tattooing technology in recent years has led to a complete transformation in talent.
The rise of industry-tailored products, like needles and pigments, has freed artists to focus on the creative aspects of their work rather than have to work within the limitations of their tools.
"Before, tattoo artists were just using what they could find. Now the quality of tools and materials is so great, it’s all taken care of by big companies,” says Barth. "Now artistic expression is free so [artists] can focus on what they’re actually doing instead of struggling to make it work.”
Barth launched his own company, Intenze Products, which produces a vast and nuanced array of tattooing pigments.
As tattooing has become more popular, industry standards and the demand for long-lasting, vibrant inks has made developing pigments a research-intensive process.
"When we started the company 10 years ago, there were seven colors available. Today it’s around 160 or 180, and the regulations are getting tighter, so you need to have the right product out there,” Barth says.
The array of pigments available has spiked the popularity of portraiture, which Barth notes as one of the top trends at this year’s convention.
Photo-realistic color portraits of family members, such as children, mothers and fathers, were particularly favored.
"Color tattoos are much more prominent over black and gray. Color tattooing now dominates the industry for sure,” Barth says.
Tattoos are more popular than ever with women, Barth notes, estimating clients at about 55 percent female and 45 percent male, the reverse of recent years.
"It’s interesting now because females get very large tattoos,” he says. “It seems like this is the first year now that the tattoo is being used as a decoration, almost like a fashion statement. It makes you unique.”
Kaitlin Sandoval of Redlands, Calif., is among those women. She attended the convention to have the first part of a full side tattoo completed -- a portrait of Barbie.
"I've loved Barbie ever since I was a little girl. I walk on my tippy toes. She’s always been my idol,” says the 23-year-old model. “Me and [tattoo artist Mike DeMasi] came up with the whole concept, and we’re gonna do my whole side -- a Barbie shoe and her house and car. So it’s gonna be a big piece, and we started here. But no Ken!”
The convention also showcased a return to what Barth calls "a huge movement” in black tribal tattoos. These, however, are not to be confused with the barbed, often meaningless designs regrettably adorned on many a man's chest or bicep in the 1990s.
"Not the big ones but more delicate ones,” Barth says. "There's a lot of symbolism coming back. They’re very clean, super sharp.”