Artists: Chester Bennington, Thora Dowdell, Sean Dowdell
Battle your way through the swirling mosh pit at one of Linkin Park’s sold- out arena shows and there’s a good chance you’ll find at least a few die- hard fans sporting forearm flame tattoos as a tribute to the band’s frontman, Chester Bennington. Just don’t bet that those fans had their derivative ink laid in at one of the five Club Tattoo shops Bennington co-owns with the husband and wife team of Sean and Thora Dowdell. “Kids come in asking for them all the time,” Sean explains over a three-way, three-time-zone con- ference call. “Chester and I have never actually talked about it, but we just don’t copy his custom pieces.”
That rule is in full effect at Club Tattoo’s freshest location in the newly renovated and decidedly swanky Planet Hollywood resort and casino on the Las Vegas strip. The partners have stocked their new 3,300-square-foot space with seven tattoo artists, a huge collection of piercing options, limited-edition jewelry, and clothing from lines like Bennington’s own Ve’cel. “It was a huge project, but honestly, it was a little easier than opening our previous shops,” Sean says. “We knew exactly what we didn’t want to do and how not to do it.” The strategy was successful enough that you can find between 80 and 100 potential customers roaming the lobby at any given time.
That kind of foot traffic is essential for survival in a tourist destination like Vegas. According to Bennington, “The hardest part is the ‘fuck you’ tax they put on everything there.” That’s something the partners weren’t used to dealing with in their other shops, all of which are located in Arizona.
Club Tattoo hopes to feel the sweet sting of taxation in other countries around the world soon. “The next step is another location in some really awesome place,” says Bennington. “I think we have our sights set on Paris next, then London or New York. We don’t want to overdo it. We’re not look- ing to be Starbucks.”
It seems like they mean it, too. The Vegas store was a project that took more than four years from inception to completion. “Now is a terrible time to open a shop,” Sean admits, “but we had been working on it for so long, and it’s an opportunity we didn’t want to lose.” Luckily, they’ve had no trouble keeping the chairs full or the product moving since they opened the doors.
One of the main attractions for the shop is the innovative touch-screen displays. The slick setups run a custom-designed program that allows potential customers to cruise through images of thousands of tattoo designs like they do songs on their iPhones. The program is even available online for people planning their trips to the shop in advance. “It took a lot of money and about eight months to develop,” Sean says. “But we’re in a destination spot now. If someone is planning a trip from New Jersey, they can decide on a tattoo in advance, and we can have the design and price quotes all ready for him when he gets to the shop.”
Despite being a service-oriented establishment, they also get the nightmare customers you’d expect in a place where tact comes at a premium. “The first night I was in the shop, four guys came in being really loud with their four-foot margaritas,” Bennington recounts. “Vegas is a place where people come to be what their egos have always wanted them to be. You obviously want their business, but you have to be careful when you’re dealing with these guys.”
With a stable of talented artists—including Melissa Hale, Walter “Sausage” Frank, Joey Hamilton, Eric Alvino, Matt Smith, Krystof, and Sammy Bockelman— it’s hard for customers to leave unhappy. That’s why the hiring process for Club Tattoo is so stringent. “I interviewed over 85 artists for the seven posi- tions we had available, and that was just over a three-week period,” Sean says. “I get at least one or two a day. Most of them start off with, ‘Hey, bro, I’ll make you a lot of money.’ Those go right into the recycling bin.”
While you can get pierced by Sean if you walk into the shop, Bennington won’t be putting any ink on you—even if you leave the four-foot margarita in your hotel room. “If I wasn’t in a big band like Linkin Park, I absolutely would have become a tattoo artist,” Bennington says. “Now I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be putting a needle in anyone’s skin, even if I’m doing it right. I can’t even imagine what the insurance would cost.”