"The first time I met Mark Mahoney, it was clear to me that he was, without question, the genuine article," Johnny Depp once said of the legendary tattoo artist. And since 2002, when Mahoney opened his Shamrock Social Club on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, it has been the tattoo parlour of choice for the Hollywood A-list.
Today, however, a new generation of celebrities is choosing to get inked not by Mahoney, but by his young apprentice. Drake, Miley Cyrus, Ellie Goulding and the like are scrambling to see Dr. Woo, who is now arguably the world's most sought-after tattoo artist.
Born Brian Woo in North Hollywood to Chinese immigrant parents, the 35-year-old has a large and growing Instagram following (with 1.1 million admirers) and a year-long waiting list. Woo has also been making waves in the fashion world, collaborating with French designer Thierry Lasry, among others. He counts Italian fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni as a regular client, and actress and model Cara Delevingne recently posted a photograph on Instagram of an intricate elephant head that Woo had drawn on her forearm. Her playful caption read, "I've been Wooed".
Fans are lured not just by social-media hype, but by Woo's astonishingly detailed monochrome tattoos. Instead of the classic cluster of needles typically used in tattooing, the artist uses a single-needle technique to create gossamer-thin lines and images, ranging from an elaborate forest with tiny tree houses reaching up one client's arm to an inky-black steam train careening across another's back.
Woo's own body is literally up to his neck with images, including a vintage photograph of his grandfather on his arm and his latest tattoo, his son's name, Raif, on his hand. "I love to tattoo things that mean the most to me, and, that's definitely my family," Woo says.
As a teenager growing up in LA's suburbs, Woo was initially drawn to tattoos because they pushed him out of his comfort zone. "A lot of the allure was the appeal of doing things that others were afraid of," he says. "Getting tattoos was the most permanent expression of being edgy, daring and challenging yourself."
Woo's father, like many Asian parents, hoped he would become a doctor (it was a Shamrock regular, on hearing that story, who nicknamed him Dr. Woo), but he clearly had other interests, hanging out with friends at Mahoney's shop after class. "Mark was already the OG [original gangster] legend in our eyes," says Woo.
A few years later, Mahoney suggested Woo apprentice at his shop. Over time, he developed his own style, creating works that border on the surreal, such as a small window with the panes flung open to reveal a tree in a lush landscape tattooed just above a woman's shoulder blades. "I think the collaborative and permanent mark you leave on someone is very special, unlike any other art form," says Woo. "It's a very personal moment and an honour that people let me be a part of their life in that way."
Words by Payal Uttam
Photography by Robert Gallagher, gallagherphoto.com