How Dr. Woo Set the Bar for a Generation of Tattoo Artists

We talked to the famed Los Angeles tattooist about celebrity clients, the world of fashion collaborations and why mentorship is indispensable in the age of Instagram.
By Whitney Bauck ,

Dr. Woo. Photo: Viceland

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Before he became a tattoo artist to celebrities like Drake, Kendall Jenner, Harry Styles, Cara Delevingne and Chiara Ferragni, Brian Woo — known to clients and fans as Dr. Woo — was a 20-something kid trying to start a clothing line.

"The moment that we're in now, with everyone starting a brand in their garage, it's kind of like what was going on in the '90s where everyone was starting brands and doing their thing," Woo says during a phone interview from Los Angeles.

An opportunity to apprentice with one of his tattoo idols, Mark Mahoney, pulled Woo away from fashion in those early years, but in a circuitous way, it's also what drew him back to the industry. He got his start working at Mahoney's legendary Hollywood shop Shamrock Social Club, where he picked up the nickname Dr. Woo and perfected his technique as a black-and-gray tattooist with a specialty in single-needle fine lines. Shamrock's celebrity clientele began to take notice of Woo's artistry, and eventually the demand for his work grew so large that he launched a shop of his own called the Hideaway at Suite X.

In the years since, Woo's become an inspiration name-checked by other celeb tattoo artists like Jonboy and has grown a robust Instagram following of 1.3 million people. He's also collaborated with brands like Converse, Sacai, Nyden, Thierry Lasry and more. It's not unusual to see him sitting front row at a Tom Ford show, or at a Vogue dinner during fashion week. And while he doesn't believe that tattoos have to necessarily be linked to fashion, he's glad that in his case, the two have found some overlap.

"I'm just a big fan of fashion," he says. "I'm into clothes. I kind of quit doing that and started this path of tattooing, and fortunately it led me back to that same path through a different direction."

A few days before he appeared on Viceland's "Tattoo Age," an accomplishment Woo didn't think he'd warrant until he was "50 or something," Fashionista hopped on the phone to talk to him about celebrity clients, the double-edged sword of social media and why nothing beats IRL mentoring.

How did you land that first apprenticeship with Mark Mahoney that set the course for your career?

I had a crew of homies that as teenagers would hang out [at Shamrock Social Club] and we all idolized Mark. I was getting tattooed by him for a long time. In my early 20s, when I was trying to figure out what I was doing, Mark out of the blue asked me if I wanted to become a helper at the shop and maybe apprentice under him. That was a very unique opportunity, so I jumped at the chance. I was around 24.

What had your life looked like before that?

I had my little brand that I was messing around with, I was a buyer for this boutique, I was painting. Just being a creative, doing odd jobs.

Did you see fashion and tattooing as connected?

I think because tattoos are such a visual offering that obviously the two tie together... but also, I think personal fashion is different than tattoos in general. I think tattoos are one thing, and personal style is another.

How did you develop your "personal brand" of tattooing? 

At the beginning it was trying to just keep up. I came from a shop that the pedigree of the artists were next-level. You're looking at your idol, and the next thing you know you're working alongside him. There was definitely a bit of "I just got to really perfect what I'm good at." And then you kind of start honing in. It was more organic than saying, "I need to be different."

How did you get into the world of celebrity tattooing?

The Shamrock Social Club is a famous shop in Hollywood — Mark Mahoney was the first real celebrity tattoo artist that brought tattooing almost to the mainstream. Every A-to-Z list celebrity was coming in and out. I just think being a product of LA, it's kind of the environment you're in.

Have you found any unique challenges to tattooing celebrities, who have the power to show your work to so many people?

I think it's like working with anyone else. The quote-unquote average guy can come in and be more of a headache than any celebrity could be. My biggest priority is the eyes of the owner of the tattoo before the eyes of the public. 

What role do you think social media has played in your career?

Before all this stuff, it was just word-of-mouth and reputation. You had to work way harder to get known. It wasn't that instant access that we have now. Now we just pick up a phone and we can jump into a rabbit hole of imagery that literally five years ago wasn't available. With each year the growth and the wealth of knowledge is just crazy.

It's a blessing and a curse. It's hard to balance what you share because you put stuff out there and so many other people start grabbing onto it, and the next thing you know it's oversaturated, whereas before the shelf life was a bit longer. Now, if you do one thing, 20 people copy it, and then people are over it by next week. Not just me or tattooing specifically — anything.

Dr. Woo tattooing Lil Miquela. Photo: @_dr_woo_/Instagram

Do you feel like it's possible to be a successful tattoo artist today without being on Instagram?

It would be tough. But I still believe in the shop, in customer service and having a good reputation. I still think above social media and the digital communication world we live in, person-to-person and word-of-mouth reputation is the most important.

Why do you think fashion keeps finding inroads into your work even though you formally walked away from it?  

I'm known for one thing, but like every other artist or creative, you have different things that inspire you and push you. I'm very happy that I'm able to link these things and express myself in a different way. I've been very fortunate to be given a second chance in the lane to produce stuff that way.

Do you have a dream future fashion collab?

I don't know. You know when you get too close to your heroes, you don't want to see the imperfections in them? I just feel like I can't even think on that level yet. I have to build myself up higher.

Dr. Woo mid-tattoo. Photo: Viceland

Have there been any challenges in balancing your career with your family life since you have a wife and two kids now?

Oh yeah. Especially now that what I do is having more of an international moment, I've been traveling like crazy. That's a tough thing to balance when you got family at home. I miss them when I'm not around. I miss them when I go to work even when I'm not traveling! We have this rule that I'm not allowed to leave for longer than seven days at a time. So even if I have a trip that's a month long, I come back every seven days. Last year I did a trip that was a little bit longer than normal, and I was going crazy missing the family.

Do you think it's tougher to have a family in your field?

My mentor Mark Mahoney made sure that he spent time with his wife and kids. He was a big role model for me to see that this kind of unorthodox lifestyle and career choice can include family. It's kind of like the new mom and pop version of a small business — you're creating a life for your family based on your craft and your art.

Mahoney clearly had such a big impact on your life. Are you interested in being a similar type of mentor for the next generation of tattoo artists?

I feel like that's further down the road. The next generation, they're not even hungry in the same way. They're just doing it. I think there's a negative and positive side to that. You can buy a tattoo machine and figure it out with the endless amount of content out there.

It's self-declaration these days. If you have an Instagram account, whatever you write in the bio is almost true. You can say, "I've been tattooing for three weeks, but I'm going to put up a few pictures and write 'tattoo artist' in my info, and then I'm a tattoo artist." When I was coming up, I would dream of the day that I could say "I'm a tattoo artist," you know? After two to three years of apprenticing, then I was able to say that. It was a respect thing for me.

But, you know, it's not just tattoos. Someone makes a really good sandwich, and then they'll put "chef" under their name on their Instagram. I think it's important in people visualizing their dreams, but there should be a responsible way to do it as well.

What would be your advice to a young tattoo artist who wants to really excel?

I think that you should learn from someone that's been in the game. I know it's hard because tattooing is such a close-knit community, and the last thing tattooers want are more tattooers over-saturating the market. But I think to be taken seriously, you should do an apprenticeship or spend time really listening to the elders.

This kind of attitude of "I don't need anyone," especially when you just are fresh in the game? I don't think that's good. You should hang around a shop, get tattooed by good artists, and listen to what they have to say. Don't be entitled and think you know everything already.

Tattoo by Dr. Woo. Photo: @_dr_woo_/Instagram

Speaking of listening to your elders — you're featured alongside a number of living legends in Viceland's "Tattoo Age." How did that feel?

I honestly didn't think I would be in an episode this early in my career. I figured it'd be when I'm, like, 50 or something. All my heroes in tattooing have been part of this. So there was a bit of hesitation on my part, like maybe I'm not ready for this retrospective yet. But [Viceland executive producer] Chris Grosso explained to me that it's more about tattooers changing the moment and effecting the culture, and he's like, "You've already done that."

The perception of "celebrity tattoo artists" with being into fashion and all can kind of become like, hype guy of the moment stuff. But I think when you watch this, you see the years of hard work I put into getting here. It wasn't built overnight.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

I want to be remembered for creating something purely out of the love of what I wanted to make. And for sharing something with the world that inspires other people to know that you don't have to be bound by a set of rules that you're born into, in whatever class or culture you're in. I was a first generation immigrant here and I was Asian, so there was culture shock and racism in a sense. I wasn't the typical kid that heard, "You can be whatever you want to be." 

But I think it's important that people know that through working hard with integrity and honesty, you can do whatever you want.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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