Mario Barth: Leadership Lessons From An Ink Empire
When I got a tattoo about 22 years ago at Big Joe’s in New York, it was a painful experience. I asked the artist who was inking me if there was any danger of getting a tattoo, and he quickly responded: “Only that you will want more.” Forty-five million Americans have one tattoo. Approximately 55 million more have multiple tattoos. That totals an estimated 100 million Americans with ink, who sustain a nearly $1.7 trillion industry in the U.S. alone—with a sizable portion of it influenced by Mario Barth.
Barth is the founder and chief tattoo artist of Starlight Tattoo and Mario Barth Tattoo, an inventor and a celebrity tattoo artist. His clientele includes Sylvester Stallone, Usher, Tommy Lee, Lenny Kravitz, Jason Kidd and an ongoing list of the world’s most famous celebrities from entertainment and sports. Barth is also the owner of the high-end tattoo studio King Ink in Foxwoods, Connecticut and the founder and owner of the 100% vegan friendly tattoo ink manufacturer and seller, INTENZE Products, Inc., one the largest manufacturers of tattoo color pigments in the world.
Barth has tattoo studios across the United States and Europe. His all-glass, aquarium-style flagship locations sit in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay and Mirage. “My goal is to bring great body art to the masses by creating one global culture in my industry,” Barth explains.
When Barth pitched his idea in 2005 to Mirage for a $1.5 million studio on their casino floor, they thought he was crazy. Tattoo studios up to that time had been run down, blacked out window businesses in bad areas. Barth’s vision proved naysayers wrong. As a result of the double-digit, multi-million dollar global empire he built, Barth is the only tattoo artist to date to grace the cover of Inc. magazine.
What distinguishes Barth from other talented artists is that he is not just a creative force. He also understands how to run a successful business and has a natural talent for it, something he attributes as an inheritance from his father who owned a screen-printing company.
Barth’s organization has generated some of the fastest-growing clientele in the global industry, making it one of the most successful tattoo businesses in the world. The business serves over 15,000 customers per year. Barth’s immense leadership success is based in fulfilling a purpose, world-class innovation, influential thought leadership, winning talent alignment, executional excellence, continuous improvement, and serving others.
Fulfilling A Purpose
Barth’s empire grew out of a passion, dream, and purpose. He started his career as a teenager in Austria. At the time, tattooing was highly illegal. He spent most of his time underground in a basement tattooing bikers, prison guards, and criminals. His efforts as a vocal advocate of the art led to the legalization of the industry in Austria in 1987, and he opened the first legal tattooing studio in the country soon after. “After that, my clientele started to change to mostly doctors who were living out their eccentric side at night. They would do surgery during the day and then get tattooed and pierced at night. It was an amazing shift to experience,” Barth explained.
After deciding to move to the United States to build his dream on a larger scale, Barth opened new-to-the-industry upscale tattoo studios in Detroit and Miami Beach, before settling down in Fairlawn, New Jersey in 1999.
According to Barth, his life was changed when he traveled to the States in the mid-80’s and met tattoo artist Sailor Bill Johnson at his Orlando, Florida studio. “It was the first legit studio I had ever been in. I only knew underground tattooing and cutthroat competition in Austria. When I told Bill that I was a tattoo artist, I was ready for a fight. Instead, he spent two and half hours with me sharing why he does what he does, about the industry, the techniques he uses and how to treat clients. I was shocked. No one shared anything like this back home. It was all about protecting your territory and the few customers you had. Bill enlightened me. For him, good art was a given . . . the standard. Creating a good line, rose or shading was just showing up to work. It was everything after that that really mattered. How you ran your business. How you treated your customers. How they felt about their tattoo ten years later. It was a breath of fresh air and opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities,” Barth said.
Before Barth came onto the legitimate industry tattooing scene, there was no education, training, sharing, literature, documents or structure. No one wanted to talk with each other for fear of losing their competitive edge. It was each person for themselves with silos and turf wars everywhere. All innovation was through trial and error and even seasoned professionals spent valuable time reinventing the wheel. It was completely inefficient and stifling to the industry. It was even worse in Europe outside of England, where no legitimate tattoo industry had ever had a chance to develop.
“After opening my first legit studio, I started to form coalitions and partnerships. I started trying to get people to talk, share and educate each other and clients. It was a tough road and I became hated by many traditionalists who felt I was pushing the industry out of the dark where they believed it must stay to survive,” Barth says.
“At the time, tattoo artists would hang their heads in shame when asked what they did for a living. They believed they had to work and hide in dark, dingy back allies. They didn’t believe they deserved nice cars or homes. It hurt me,” Barth admits.
Barth believes that innovation is the lifeblood of sustainability. Without innovation, industries and businesses stagnate and die. Due to this belief, Barth is a tireless innovator. He frequently experiments on himself and a good portion of his body is covered with elaborate art.
“Barth is an intense problem solver and risk taker,” Billy Burke, the producer and director of Barth’s first documentary film, says. “He is not afraid to put everything on the line for what he believes in. Because he worked on the front lines of the industry . . . and still does . . . he knows the problems artists face and can easily see the white spaces and opportunities for improvement. Knowing the struggles of those he leads and being committed to improvements has been key to Mario’s innovative leadership,” Burke adds.
Barth and Burke started their long-term friendship when Burke was 18 years old and got a tattoo from Barth in New Jersey. Many years later, Barth asked him to come to Japan with him to direct his first award-winning documentary entitled Under the Skin. They went on to produce a History Channel series called Marked (airing in 2009) about underground tattooing around the world. Enjoying their working relationship, Barth asked Burke to help him in other capacities. “Billy has been one of my closest advisors for the past 15 years,” Barth says. Burke currently serves as Barth’s branding manager.
Prior to Barth’s arrival on the tattoo scene, artists only had primary colors to work with. If they mixed their inks to make a new color, it could never be exactly replicated. This created a problem for customers who had to return to the studio numerous times to complete larger tattoos. In answer to this, Barth introduced a 19 Tattoo Ink Color Set to the market. His current sets offer over 200 colors, including “Snow White Opaque,” “Banana Cream,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Sangria.” Increasing from a few colors to hundreds may seem like a simple innovation, but it changed the industry forever by allowing for greater artistic freedom.
Barth then developed a platform to share the great work of celebrated tattoo artists around the world. Since artists did not share their industry knowledge in the past, most trainees—if they were lucky—only had the opportunity to learn from one person as an apprentice.
Today, due to Barth’s efforts, artists now have access to not only the exact color palates of their favorite artists, but instructional guides and videos explaining their techniques. This has enabled artists globally to learn from masters like Mark Mahoney, Mike Demasi, Bob Tyrrell, Boris and Freddie Negrete, elevating the entire industry and the quality and offerings of body art for consumers.
Barth was also the first to establish an official worldwide certified supplier network for tattoo ink. He went on to develop and manufacturer the first ever sterile single use product, the Intenze One Cap Tattoo Inks. This innovation revolutionized how tattoo artists conduct their business travels and vastly improved the safety and sterility of tattooing.
In 2007, Barth acted as a consultant and practitioner for Hackensack Cosmetic Surgeons for reconstructive micropigmentation on cancer patients. He developed a series of special inks for use in reconstructive surgery to help patients adjust with a more natural dermal appearance after major operations.
But Barth’s innovation goes well beyond physical products. He recently started partnering with large organizations like MGM and the new American Dream shopping and entertainment complex near Giants Stadium in New York, a Nickelodeon and Dream Works partnership expecting to attract 55 million visitors annually, to bring the art of tattoo to the masses in comfortable, clean, safe, and non-intimidating venues. In the past, getting a tattoo most likely meant travelling to an unsafe area and entering a dark building with a neon sign outside. It was easy to question whether someone would get out alive after entering.
Today, would-be tattoo customers can enter high-end, multi-cultural, bright studios with coffee bars, mirrors, R&B and soul music playing, elaborate murals, and plush waiting rooms to get inked. Barth led the way for businesses like the Harley Davidson dealership in Scottsdale, Arizona, near my home. There, you can get a tattoo in a glass box suspended over the motorcycle sales floor. It is a stunning site that brings to mind Beverly Hills, not a dirty basement. Tattoo artists can now be proud of their art instead of feeling the need to hide underground like social outcasts.
Barth also instituted a monumental change in how the industry views its own work. In the past, tattooing was more about the artist and less about the customer. Body art would be inked according to what the artist liked or thought their customer should have. Today, Barth instructs all his artists to get into their clients’ heads and make their customer’s vision a reality. “It is all about communicating with a client to bring their vision to life. The artist is simply an instrument for the customer to make this happen. All emotions and feelings must be set aside. An artist must get into the mind of their client. Like all businesses, you know when you hit your customer’s button.” Barth says. He is able to maintain this consistent philosophy in his ventures because of the time he takes to explain the belief system, why it is important, and what the expectation is.
Barth’s innovative efforts have not only accelerated the growth of his business and industry, but have also substantially raised the industry’s safety and health standards.
Influential Thought Leadership
Barth is not only interested in evolving his industry; he is also committed to driving a movement. He believes education is foundational to such an undertaking.
“Even though tattooing is a 4,000 year old art form, it has been basically ignored by art historians and museums. In some parts of the world, it is still illegal,” Barth explains. “Teaching people about the art, history, and beauty of our industry is key to its growth and sustainability.” There are currently no accredited schools teaching the art form anywhere in the world.
Barth’s commitment to education and promoting his industry led him to his film and television projects and, most recently, an Austrian television series called Pain & Fame. All are intended to help enlighten people about the beauty of body art, its importance, and its sociohistorical origins.
Creating an above-ground movement around a suppressed art form that a portion of the global public still views as seedy is no small task. Another hurdle to overcome is the consideration that tattooing was also used throughout history for punishment or to brand prisoners. Even today, most Jewish cemeteries will not bury people with tattoos. In Japan, getting a job with a large employer, the government or law enforcement with a tattoo can be difficult.
Barth’s vision is to move his art form from darkness to light, from shame to celebration, and from underground to mainstream. He dreams of building an industry and profession that people can feel proud to be a part of and creating art people want to show off and can freely do so. “If you want to be professional, you must act professional,” Barth insists.
Barth describes himself as determined. He sees the world as filled with opportunities waiting to be seized by those bold enough to stay the course. “I believed that my industry could be different. I made many enemies because of it. I challenged artists to share their ideas and techniques, studios to come out of the shadows, and the industry as a whole to think differently about how business was done and customers were served,” Barth says.
“Only 10 years ago, 99% of people in our industry were from the streets. No one knew how to run a business. This is all changing now because of education and thought leadership,” Barth says.
Winning Talent Alignment
If you are interested in getting a tattoo from Barth, get on the list. It will be about a two year wait and cost you $1,500 for the appointment. If people will wait this long for the work you do, you can be pretty confident that you’re delivering what you do best. Speaking to Barth, it is clear that he loves what he does, too. When you can do what you love, and what you’re best at, you’ve found the ultimate combination for success in life. Barth’s achievements are clear evidence.
Among his many innovations, Barth was also the first to establish an official tattoo artist sponsorship initiative. Starting in Florence, Italy, the Intenze Creative Academy currently sponsors over 57 of the world’s top artists, giving others the chance to do what they love and are best at in life. The exclusive program includes a core requirement that enforces a responsibility for all those sponsored to educate and teach others in the industry—to play it forward.
When it comes to hiring, Barth is looking for bubbly, upbeat and friendly artists who are considered the best in their field. The culture and personality fit are foundational. He is looking for people who believe what he believes, but who also deliver diversity of thought and character. He wants thinkers and innovators to help him find the missing link to stabilize his industry, something Barth believes is his personal purpose in life. Barth has brought structure to this part of his business by developing training, published policies and a shadowing program to ensure the success of his new hires. After a 30-day trial period, new team members are assessed to determine their fit and likelihood of success. All employment decisions are made in a team setting. This process has yielded tenure reaching 15 to 22 years across Barth’s businesses.
Barth’s empire continues to rapidly grow as a result of putting people in roles where they can play to their strengths and passions. This philosophy has proven critical to his business success.
“We are dreamers and doers. You must be both to work here and be successful. Mario wants people who dream big and then roll up their sleeves to get it done. The culture is fast paced, entrepreneurial, and constantly pivoting,” Burke explains. While big ideas are expected, results are celebrated. Barth knows that the best ideas are nothing without execution.
“It is about consistently doing what you say you are going to do, when you say you will do it. Also, being well-spoken, professional, and creating a professional environment—things most people did not originally expect from the tattoo industry. This is about art and family, but within the walls of a well-run and structured business,” Barth states.
Barth insists that the foundation of a good business is the same for all industries and that purpose and executional excellence are a basic requirement for success. “Those that think the rules don’t apply to them are wrong,” Barth adds.
Key to the winning culture Barth has built is a practice of consistency, feedback, and continuous improvement. Despite having 68 tattoo artists across the United States, every morning over a cup of coffee, Barth reviews and gives feedback on a photo of every tattoo created the day before. This prompt feedback ensures that every client is getting the best quality artwork and improvements are always in progress. This practice applies to a review of customer interactions, too.
“The level of quality and service you receive in a tattoo studio should and must be the same rich, accommodating and fulfilling experience you have at any top retailer,” Burke insists. “This is what Mario has brought to this industry. He has made it the professional business it needed to be,” Burke adds.
Servant leadership is also an inherent component to the Barth culture. “The people that work for me are my family. Their lives and careers matter to me. Their growth and success are my focus,” Barth says.
“Mario is the most loyal, loving, caring, genuine, and generous person I have ever met. He is successful in life because he truly cares about others. Everyone, including me, want to work hard for him. Everyone wants him to succeed because of who he is, because of how much they love him. Mario’s success is because of who he is as a person and how much he gives to others. It is karma,” Burke explains.
When it comes to his customers, Barth remains consistent. “He is about adding value, not selling products,” Burke says. Barth’s aim is to help artists elevate their art form and for those getting tattooed to safely and confidently realize their vision. All his products must satisfy this basic value proposition.
Barth has won over 200 international awards and is considered one of the most influential artists in the history of tattooing. His annual Inked Out New Jersey Tattoo & Music Festival, a tattoo and piercing expo, draws crowds in excess of 20,000 and pulls together the largest collection of top tattoo artists in the world.
Barth’s priority is to bring structure to his industry, business, employees, and clients. Ironically, this is the same structure his father impressed on him, which he detested and fought against as a child.
“I recognize that I can’t do this all on my own. One man can’t win a war, but he can be the strategist behind it,” Barth concludes.
For more information, visit PurposeMeetsExecution.com and check out my new book Purpose Meets Execution: How Winning Organizations Accelerate Engagement and Drive Profits
Published on Forbes, 13 March 2017
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