NEW YORK >> The sun had long since set when the design — an intricate garland of roses and a few skulls drawn on the skin in Sharpie marker — finally dried and it was time to begin tattooing the client, who had arrived shortly before 4 p.m. The usual accoutrements — individually wrapped needles and tubes, containers of ink and antiseptic, and a smear of A+D ointment — were fanned out across a table next to the artist.
“He’s going to start on the most painful spot,” the client, Rich Hilfiger, said with a smile as the tattooist held the gun aloft, staring intently and grasping an ounce of flesh between the shoulder and collarbone.
“I’m feeling really good about this,” Hilfiger’s girlfriend, Krystal Martos, chimed in, despite protesting earlier that watching the process would almost hurt her more than him.
It was a scene that unfolds along low-rent commercial strips in towns big and small, but this was no storefront tattoo parlor, with neon signs in the windows and folding chairs in cramped quarters. Instead, it was the pop-up studio of Mister Cartoon — a tattooist who counts Eminem, Beyonce and Mena Suvari as clients — at the Marcel at Gramercy, an upscale boutique hotel looking to distinguish itself from the pack.
As part of the hotel’s artist-in-residence series, Mister Cartoon, who is based in Los Angeles and usually has a three- to six-month waiting list for appointments, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, has created original artwork that hangs in the lobby. And from Nov. 14 through Wednesday, he is offering his services out of a two-bedroom suite.
In a city with stiff competition for travel dollars and new rooms constantly under construction, hotels are scrambling to create promotions that give their properties a little personality, positioning themselves as go-to places for their desired customers.
“Hotels do these promotions, like offering a $10,000 cocktail complete with engagement ring, not so much because guests order them but because it creates an image of the hotel in patrons’ minds,” Sean Hennessey, the chief executive at Lodging Investment Advisors, a consulting firm, said in an e-mail.
At the Marcel, part of Amsterdam Hospitality, which also operates the Empire Hotel near Lincoln Center, that has meant an emphasis on the arts, intended to appeal to its guests from the fashion, entertainment and retail industries. “We were introduced to Cartoon, and once we saw his artwork, we said, ‘OK, we’ve never thought about tattoos before, but this is kind of cool,”’ said Blake Danner, the executive vice president of Amsterdam Hospitality.
For Mister Cartoon, 40, who has done two previous tattoo sessions at the hotel in the last year, the promotions offer a chance to visit New York — a place that has captivated him since he saw Fab 5 Freddy painting graffiti in the music video for the Blondie song “Rapture” — and to practice his art in a nicer setting.
“I’ve worked in a lot of hard spots — garages, inside of nightclubs, that’s the worst,” he said. “But this is very comfortable, and it’s important that it be a comfortable setting to do this type of art. Most tattoo places, it’s like, ‘You want to get a tattoo or what?’ That’s the sales pitch.”
A veteran graffiti and airbrush artist and an illustrator for magazines and album covers, Mister Cartoon, whose given name is Mark Machado, began tattooing in the mid-1990s, but things did not really take off until a prominent tattooist promised to mentor him 13 years ago if he stopped drinking and smoking. He did, he said, a move that has helped him build a business that now includes a marketing agency and partnerships with several apparel companies.
“I’m a whole different person,” he said, adding that he was now a homeowner and married with four children.
Indeed, the theme of recovery was ever-present in the sleek yellow-and-gray suite on Friday evening, and certainly distinct from the vibe of the more staid and true hotel packages offering spa treatments and shopping excursions.
Here, along with a bin of soft drinks, water and Red Bull on ice came a steady flow of conversation about the relative merits of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I’ve got 100 days sober,” said Hilfiger, 20, who has been living at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and arrived with a man he described as his “spiritual adviser” in “trying to stay sober.” Hilfiger, who already had both arms and his belly covered in tattoos, was looking to fill in the space above an inscription on his chest, “The Wind Cries Mary” (a Jimi Hendrix song title), and another spot just below his chin.
Recently out of rehab and having not “been tatted in six months,” he was a little concerned about the pain of the needle traversing his collarbone, but seemed more worried about potentially meeting Martos’ father, an Army veteran, over the Thanksgiving weekend. On prom night, Martos, 26, said, laughing, her father had invited her date into the kitchen, where he was “reading a book about killing.”
Hilfiger, a singer who performs under the name Rich Hil but is working at a clothing store downtown as part of his probation in a marijuana possession case, was less worried about his own father, the fashion magnate Tommy Hilfiger.
When he told his father he was planning to have the space under his chin tattooed — “because it’s kind of different for a white kid like me to have,” he said — the elder Hilfiger did not love the idea.
“Why can’t you wait until I’m in my grave?” the son said his father had beseeched.
The son’s response was to have Mister Cartoon fill the space, in ornate script, with this: “I love you, Dad.”