Mario Barth: Under the Skin

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Mario Barth: Under the Skin Review


Tattoo entrepreneur Mario Barth is juggling two successful businesses (the celebrity-approved Starlight Tattoo and manufacturing sterile ink), a family, and flying across the world to get his tattoo bodysuit worked on. The last part of his busy life is examined in this award-winning documentary, Under the Skin.

The 58-minute film examines one of Barth's trips to Japan, where he gets his tattoo worked on by the legendary Horitoshi family, who specialize in the ancient art of Tebori. It's an elaborate, painstaking work that takes up to eight years of weekly visits and costs around $30,000. And thanks to its illicit connection -- the Yakuza still makes up a goodly portion of the business -- Tebori tattoo is banned by the Japanese government.

Barth's procedure is very hush-hush. Someone actually guides him to the shop (there are no storefronts) and it's rare for anyone in the family to be on camera. But director Billy Burke gets a load of goodies: an interview with tattoo master Horitoshi I (whose goal is for his students to exceed his talents) and shots of the ornate body art. What's even more remarkable is that the Austrian-born Barth is embraced by the clan, participating in cultural events, socializing with them in underground bath houses, and even doing a little late-night jamming.

The documentary offers a revealing look at an illicit practice and its dedicated practitioners and participants, though some questions remain unanswered by Barth and Burke. I would have liked to know what possesses someone to endure years of pain for thousands of dollars, and if the Japanese government is going to change its stance on Tebori anytime soon. And despite the movie's short running time, it feels padded. Though it's cool, seeing a tattoo removed by laser adds nothing to the proceedings. Neither does watching Barth and his friends doing an OK impression of the Allman Brothers Band for nearly three minutes.

Barth's Japanese sojourn and the resulting bonding would be terrific as a subplot to a larger film about his non-stop life. On its own, there's barely enough for a movie.



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