North Jersey tattoo artist explains a mystique

9 p.m. Thursday, History Channel

It's just ink.

Nothing more.

Just ink needled into dermis in patchwork patterns that can aptly be defined as superficial in one sense of the word (and sometimes the other).

That's all a tattoo is, said industry pioneer Mario Barth - to those without any, at least.

To folks on the inside, however, tats are at once identity and identifier, a welcoming and warning, lively ink and inky lifeblood.

This duality, said the Washington Township resident and founder of Starlight Tattoos, is the most misunderstood aspect of tattooing.

And so he's created "Marked," an eye-opening history lesson on ink and its associated symbolism, which will premiere 9 p.m. Thursday, appropriately enough on the History Channel.

"More than anything this is going to be an explanation of signage and what these marks mean," Barth said from the desk of the Hackensack office where he runs his many ink-related businesses. "People have their ideas about these things, but not many people really know the truth behind it."

To bring folks up to speed with the six-episode series, Barth reached out to his Rolodex of in-the-know connections who helped get access to the back stories you don't get on tat reality shows like "Miami Ink" or "Inked."

"Marked," he said, isn't a look at his day-to-day life (his North Jersey and Vegas shops, his ink-making business, his tattoo conventions, his non-profit work). It's a look at day-to-day life in maximum security prisons, in East L.A. street gangs, in the country's toughest motorcycle clubs and other circles in which ink is more than "just ink."

"These subcultures have their own symbolism and some of these have carried on from generation to generation," said co-producer Billy Burke, formerly of Old Tappan, whose résumé includes the MSG/Fuse reality show "The Brooklyn Way" and Barth's documentary "Under the Skin," on tebori, a traditional style of Japanese tattooing. "So this was about getting inside those circles and documenting what these things mean and where they come from."

What you're not going to see in any of the hour-long episodes is the ink you're accustomed to seeing at malls (and in other reality shows): the flowery lower-back tattoos, the ubiquitous Japanese characters, the tough-guy barbed-wire designs.

Instead, the documentary-style episodes will school you on the more meaningful ink jobs that popularized the medium: the skulls of East L.A. gangs, the masked imprints of Aryan groups, the initiation markings of "outlaw" motorcycle clubs.

In addition to explaining why these folks get tattooed, "Marked" will show how they're getting tattooed.

"We also show in each episode how these tattoos are being performed," Burke said. "So [in prison], you'll see the melting of the boot leather and the homemade machines and primitive tools they're using."

From what Barth calls "a zoomed-in view," you also get to share in his passion for the deep-rooted history of tattooing and see how - despite bouncing periodically between royalty, outlaws and the masses - the ancient art has retained its initial purpose of expressing one's individuality and fraternity simultaneously.

"Whether you're in prison or a motorcycle gang, or even a jungle or a tribe, these marks can determine your rank, your status, who you are. It's the same as thousands of years ago," said Barth, who emphasized that the show is impartial and neither endorses nor judges anyone it showcases. (He keeps the same view at Starlight Tattoos, where he does pro-bono work covering the telling tats of reformed gang members.)

"Marked," like "Under the Skin" before it, is ultimately about documenting the history of the medium, not sensationalizing it or exploiting it, say Barth and Burke.

And it's backed up by a symbolic seal as legitimizing as any subculture tattoo: Barth's name and reputation.

"This is ethically important to me. This is my life," Barth said. "And these people that I talk to and deal with, they have my phone number, they know where I live. . I'm active in this industry, and if I'm going to do something, I'm going to make it true and real."