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Dark inks lend recession a bright hue

April 06, 2009 12:41 IST

The dungeon-like room, lit only by small fluorescent lamps above three chairs, greets the customer with piercing heavy-metal music that sends vibrations through the floor. Flickering red candles illuminate the black walls, adorned with paintings and sculptures of monsters, skulls and bleeding faces.

This isn't the set of a Nine Inch Nails' video. It's Last Rites Tattoo Theatre in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, where Paul Booth, 41, works his black magic. Much of his portly, 5-foot, 10-inch frame is covered in black tattoos. His favourite -- running from the right side of his face over the top and back of his buzzed-bald head -- is an abstract design sketched by his mentor Felix Leu and inked by Leu's son Filip (Felix died of cancer before he could finish the job). A hoop ring hangs from between Booth's nostrils, and dark dreadlocks dangle from his nape to his knees -- an incongruous presentation, given his warm smile and easy laugh. "I just see the darker side of life," he says.

He also sees a brighter side to the recession, thanks to his lofty $400-an-hour rate and a waiting list he says runs 3,500 clients deep, not including the tamer throngs he turns away. "I won't do unicorns," he warns.

Yet for every Fred Durst (the ink-saturated front man for the rock band Limp Bizkit), and wrestler Mark "The Undertaker" William Callaway -- both current customers -- Booth says he serves at least as many doctors and lawyers. "Going to Paul is expensive but worth it," avers Brandy Coco, a 27-year-old financial adviser from Gates Mills, Ohio, who waited just under two years to get in Booth's chair. Three visits and $3,500 later, Coco says she plans to go back again to fill in more of the Medusa-and-snakes design that covers her back, shoulders and tops of her arms. "It's the same thing as paying that much for plastic surgery: It changes your body for the rest of your life."

Many customers spend an entire day at Last Rites; some jobs take between 10 and 12 hours over several sittings. "I consult with the person for hours sometimes before I even touch them," says Booth, adding, a tad eerily, "I want to get inside their head, find out their fears, what troubles them and what they're looking for in the image." The chat is gratis, as is the preliminary sketching. The payment clock starts ticking when needle touches skin.

One loyal follower, named Ismael Millano, a window installer from Newark, N.J., was on Booth's waiting list for three years before getting word last month that his turn would soon be up. Millano plans to give Booth his entire arm as a canvas, a $2,000 to $3,000 job. "Some people like fancy cars, clothes or jewelry," says Millano, 30. "For me, a tattoo from Paul is that kind of an investment. It's a piece of art that lives on my body."

Booth attended Catholic school through 12th grade in Boonton, N.J., where teachers scolded him for doodling images of monsters and skeletons during class. After high school he tried his hand at graphic design, but that too proved a tough fit. In 1988 he apprenticed at a tattoo studio in nearby Butler, where he inked generic roses, cartoon characters and the occasional skull. His big break came three years later at a Pittsburgh tattoo convention where artists were abuzz over a black and gray demon Booth had emblazoned on the thigh of his then girlfriend.

Soon after, Booth started his own parlor out of his house in Boonton and by 1997 had saved enough to open a studio on Manhattan's Lower East Side. At its height, Booth had six tattoo artists, including himself. After his move to Hell's Kitchen in the fall of 2007 he had a falling-out with his crew. Even with a smaller staff, down to three, Booth says Last Rites is on track to exceed $450,000 in annual revenue this year, thanks, in part, to his recently jacking up rates to $400 an hour from $250 to $300. That's more than enough to cover jaunts to tattoo conventions in Beijing, Singapore, Berlin and Cape Town, South Africa.

Booth has his eye on more than the needle. "Even though I could make a lot more money just tattooing, I have other things to do too," he says. In 2002 he started an eponymous film production company. Its first effort: a documentary about artists from around the world coming together to paint and sell their wares to raise money for art education programs. A second film takes viewers on a tour of Booth's tattoo studio. Last month he put out an album of haunting keyboard music, called Inspirational Hymns, sold at Target and Barnes & Noble.

His next vision: a creepy, "dark arts" bed and breakfast, preferably at an old Victorian in the woods.

Melanie Lindner, Forbes
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