There’s a strip mall in Tempe, AZ, the desert suburb just outside of Phoenix. Actually, there are a lot of strip malls. But this particular strip mall is home to the original Club Tattoo, a shop opened in 1995. When Linkin Park and Dead by Sunrise vocalist Chester Bennington enters the shop on a bright, blazing hot August afternoon, he seems infinitely less intense offstage than he does when his voice is barreling into the microphone. He is dressed in blue jeans, camouflaged slip-on sneakers, and a white T-shirt that shows off his tattoos. The 33-year-old singer seems at home in the shop, and he should be. This is where Bennington got his first tattoo, 15 years ago, long before Linkin Park. Now, 45 million albums later, he and longtime friends Sean and Thora Dowdell own this shop and four others throughout the States, including a swank new location at the Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.
Parked in the back office, Bennington points to the large koi fish on his left biceps. “This was my first when I was 18. There was a girl named Jodi [Wendt] who I thought was super fucking hot who worked here. I wanted her to give me my first tattoo so she would be forced to lean over me for five hours. I wanted a Pisces symbol, and it turned out to be this thing with these weird fish and these stupid faces. But it’s my first tattoo and it has sentimental meaning.”
Despite the ear-shattering guitars and guttural screams, Bennington can be sentimental. Just not for Arizona. The singer grew up on the west side of Phoenix, in an area he describes as “just suburbia.” But he wasn’t happy. “I hated being in Arizona growing up. Between the abuse as a kid [at the hands of an older male “friend”] and my parents getting divorced and getting into drugs, there were—with the exception of music—no real good memories here. I couldn’t wait to get out.”
A tour of the area where Bennington grew up is about what you would expect from a future rock star. He spent his days manning the grill at the local Burger King, skateboarding with friends, and fronting his first band—the grunge rock group Grey Daze—alongside Sean Dowdell. He also did a lot of drugs. At the time, Bennington was addicted to crystal meth, among other things.
“Cocaine was never really my favorite. I’ve done a lot of it [laughs] but it wasn’t my drug of choice. I’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, you have coke. I guess I’ll do that. Anything else? No? All right, then.’ Cocaine’s high wasn’t really the best. … I love to do things that make you feel really good, like ecstasy and acid and mushrooms. But you can’t do those every day because they don’t work every day. Things that do are alcohol, marijuana, and speed. Those usually work all the time.”
By the time he was 18, Bennington had overcome his addiction to crystal meth and other hard drugs by quenching that thirst with alcohol and pot. He met his first wife, Samantha Olit, while working at the fast food chain. The two were married on Halloween 1996 when Bennington was just 20, and because money was tight he had his wedding band tattooed onto his ring finger. In 1999, the singer auditioned and was accepted into Linkin Park as their second vocalist. He relocated his wife and their first child to southern California and didn’t look back. Linkin Park’s debut album, Hybrid Theory, was released in 2000 to explosive success and by 2001 had already sold nearly 5 million copies. Bennington appeared antidrug during this time, denouncing drug use in interviews and singing “Breaking the Habit,” a song Linkin Park’s other vocalist, Mike Shinoda, wrote for the band.
The respite wouldn’t last long. The problems started when Bennington’s marriage crumbled. Their drama-filled relationship and messy divorce in 2005 paved the way for his relapse. “It wasn’t like, Oh I’m so sad this relationship is over—what could I have done to make it better? It was more like, This is sad because I’ve become someone I don’t even like because I fucking hate this person and she hates me and life is not fun. It was miserable all the time. There was yelling constantly. I preferred to be out on the road than anywhere near my house.
“My parents have both been remarried three times and I refused to accept the fact that I was not happy in this relationship. I was like, I’m not getting divorced. I will not be that guy who didn’t work it out—who didn’t hang in there for 30 years and then all of a sudden there’s magic. So stupid.” When the dust settled, Bennington claims he didn’t have much left. “I lost all my shit. All my money and half of my publishing up until Minutes to Midnight is hers. There is a lot of anger that goes along with that—like, You did not do that. All she did was piss me off. She fought me on my career a lot of time. That’s what I don’t understand. How is this fair? But life isn’t fair.”
Bennington tattooed over the wedding band with a big black line: “I was thinking of getting it lasered, but I decided to get it covered up.” Through former Orgy guitarist and Dead by Sunrise member Ryan Shuck, he was introduced to Talinda Bentley, a teacher who had modeled for Playboy twice during her college days. He was smitten and soon called a friend to say that he was going to marry this woman he had just met. Though his friend thought he had lost his mind, Bennington’s gut was right. The two were married on December 31, 2005, and Bentley gave birth to their son three months later. [He has two other children from a previous relationship.] But despite the happiness he was feeling, the dissolution of his first marriage was still having a huge impact on him.