Las Vegas tattoo shops go upscale

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Just behind a large plate glass window, Cazzie Luz is getting inked. A weekend visitor to Vegas, Luz is getting the University of Arizona's \"A\" logo tattooed onto his right leg. There's no garish neon sign in the window announcing the shop is \"Open.\" The bright lights -- far stronger than ...


By Jay Jones // 05.29.09
 

Just behind a large plate glass window, Cazzie Luz is getting inked. A weekend visitor to Vegas, Luz is getting the University of Arizona's "A" logo tattooed onto his right leg.

There's no garish neon sign in the window announcing the shop is "Open." The bright lights -- far stronger than the 40-watt bulbs one might expect to find -- make that obvious. Also missing are the bongs and rolling papers found in seedier tattoo parlors. Instead, the display cases are stocked with designer handbags and jewelry.

"Don't call it a parlor. It's a tattoo studio," Thora Dowdell, the heavily inked co-owner, says as she greets me at Club Tattoo, inside the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.

Thora, her husband, Sean, and then-fledgling musician Chester Bennington opened their first store in Phoenix in 1995. Since then, Bennington has risen to fame as lead vocalist for the popular rock band Linkin Park.

"I've been friends with Sean and Thora for far longer than I've been making records," Bennington says. "I helped put the paint on the walls of the very first Club Tattoo 14 years ago.

"We have a very, very, very highly respected business within the tattoo community internationally. And honestly, in terms of opening up our store here, it had nothing to do with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park opening up a tattoo store. It was Club Tattoo opening [another] studio."

No one, however, disputes that Bennington's fame is good for business. When Club Tattoo opened earlier this spring, it became the fourth such business on or near the Strip with celebrity ties. Freestyle motocross racer Carey Hart began the trend at the Palms in 2004. (He's since moved to the Hard Rock.) Mario Barth, creator of the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth, operates out of Mandalay Bay. And another rock star -- Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe fame -- runs a shop inside O'Sheas Casino.

From Alicia Keys to Sylvester Stallone to Terrell Suggs, celebrities from various walks of life have been inked at these upscale salons.

"A.J. [McLean] from Backstreet Boys was here the other day," Thora Dowdell tells me.

"Is he still considered a celebrity?" Bennington interjects with a laugh.

The growing number of famous folks sporting tattoos has no doubt helped to bring the ancient art form out of the shadows. Fashionable salons can further help to dispel the notion that tattoo parlors are the domain of low-rent districts.

"Our goal has been, from the very beginning, to remove the stigma of what people had thought of tattoos and tattoo artists, that they're kind of dirty, tough guys [working on] convicts, bikers [and] military guys overseas," Bennington says. "Our goal has always been to elevate the image of the tattoo industry as a whole."

Club Tattoo is striving to change public perceptions by putting the tattoo artists in its front window, although back rooms exist for patrons who need privacy for their tattoos or piercings.

Dowdell says the shop -- sandwiched between an art gallery and an upscale cookware store -- offers "tens of thousands of [design] images." They can be viewed at high-tech computer kiosks that also allow customers to create their own visions.

Terin Blachard didn't come to Vegas in search of a tattoo. In fact, he says he and his wife, Robin, stumbled on Club Tattoo during their recent long weekend in Sin City.

Blachard, visiting from North Carolina, says he discussed his desired image -- a stylized Christian cross -- with artist Eric Alvino before Alvino got down to work with his electric stylus.

"I've had milestones in my life. I like a tattoo to signify these events," Blachard says. "The cross, to me, is a symbol of strength, moral strength, to stand up and do the right thing."

Alvino spent about 90 minutes inking the cross into Blachard's skin at a cost of $450. It's his third tattoo -- a far cry from the number of images sported by the shop's owners, whose bodies are covered with various designs.

"I have over 25 tattoos, and I'm going to keep going," Bennington says. The biggest are a pair of dragons, each 14 inches long, that cover much of his back. Below them sits a particularly meaningful design.

"I promised myself that if I ever was in a band that sold a million records, I'd get the band's name tattooed on me. So I have a Linkin Park tattoo on my lower back," he explains with pride.