It was a warm night in Los Angeles, 2012; it must have been summer, but it could just as easily have been the dead of winter. My roommate at the time, Casey was heading to West Hollywood to get tattooed by his buddy, another Morrissey piece. I had never been to the famed Shamrock Social Club, so I decided to tag along. Pulling up to the green neon signs, I recall Casey going on and on about how amazing of an artist his friend was, simply referring to him as Woo.
This was four years after Brian, or “Dr. Woo” as the world knows him, began tattooing as an apprentice under legendary artist Mark Mahoney. This was also long before most of his 850,000-plus fans, including myself, began following and admiring his work on Instagram. As we stepped into the loud buzz of the typically intimidating tattoo studio, we were greeted by a soft-spoken and visibly humble dude. This may be difficult to imagine now from arguably the hottest tattoo artist at the moment, boasting the largest celebrity clientele from Drake to Cara Delevingne, Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant – the list goes on. Masses have flocked to Dr. Woo, celebrities or otherwise, for his detailed designs and intricate artwork. Thanks to social media, we’ve been given the opportunity to watch his unique style develop with each subsequent tattoo, and with it, the colossal success and widespread praise from the public – typically unseen by tattoo artists.
His signature style consists of compact and extremely detailed fine-line work, performed on a microscopic scale. This delicate style is achieved through the use of the single-needle technique – contrary to the traditional eight needles used in tattooing. Woo’s pieces leave you in awe, fitting an entire lion’s head on a single finger and a full-length LA skyline on the palm of one hand. His work, though a far deviation from the bold lines, bright colors and recognizable imagery of traditional tattoos, is equally distinct.
This modern style brings something fresh to the age-old art form, and its impact on the tattoo world is obvious, garnering scores of admirers around the globe, from diehard tattoo enthusiast to those entirely new to the art form. More and more, I run into fans of Woo’s work who express passionately that they want their first tattoo to be a piece by the man himself. Woo is not only broadening the art by adding his own unique style, but he is also making a clear impact on tattoo culture as a whole. The reach of his work has inadvertently served in tearing down some of the stigma associated with tattooing, making the art form more open, accessible and appreciated by the masses. And while traditional styles will always remain the cornerstone of tattooing, it is exciting to see an art form and a craft as old as tattooing continue to grow and progress.
We caught up with Dr. Woo to talk about his journey and personal relationship with his craft, as well as what’s ahead for him and for the art of tattooing.
It seems everyone can spot a Dr. Woo tattoo nowadays, but for those who aren’t familiar with your artwork, how do you describe your style?
I guess the easiest way to answer that is to say that my tattoos don’t really look like the typical “tattoo” tattoo. The lines are finer and the detail is magnified. Some would say it looks like a pencil drawing on skin.
How did you decide to get into tattooing?
Well, initially, I didn’t think I wanted to get into tattooing. I was a huge fan of the craft and receiving tattoos, but was very intimidated by the fact that I would be held responsible for permanently marking someone’s skin forever. After years of being Mark Mahoney’s client, he eventually asked me if I wanted to apprentice for him. This was huge especially with Mark being one of my biggest influences and role models… How could I say no? I quit my job the next day and started picking up a few shifts here and there at Shamrock. From there, the grueling years of apprenticeship started (laughs).
Tattooing has been around for centuries. How do you approach bringing something new to such a traditional art form?
Honestly, it was such a daunting thought when I first got into tattooing. I asked myself, “How do I stand out and bring something new amid years and years of history?” To forget about all that, I just put my head down and worked and worked to better my craft. Now, years later, I think my style and aesthetic have found its own route. I think the novelty might only be the content itself. The actual craft of it all has been, and always will be, synergistic to the past and future.
What compelled you to this single-needle style? Did you specifically choose it or did it kind of just come to you?
It was definitely not a direct choice. When I started, I was very heavily influenced by the bold traditional tattoo style. But, being in the presence of Mark – the single needle king – Freddy, and the other fellas at the shop who all were very well-versed in fine-line tattooing, I just absorbed it and it became my “go-to” style. For what I wanted to accomplish in a tattoo, the single needle was my best weapon.
How have you seen this style progress through your own work and the work of others since you started tattooing?
In the beginning, I was using the single needle style solely for the fine-line classic Southern California style like roses, calligraphic script, portraits and Catholic religious themes. Because I was a walk-in artist, I was constantly challenged with tattooing whatever people wanted outside of my comfort zone. After a while, I just applied the single needle to everything because not much was offered out there aside from our shop for super fine-line, detailed, smaller tattoos. I guess I just developed a certain recognizable style and it kept evolving. Now, I see some of the same aesthetic being done more often and it’s cool to see some direct influence among those. Especially since I was so influenced by Mark and Freddy and my tattoo lineage, it’s kind of cool to see the preservation of tattoo culture.
Did you find it difficult to distinguish yourself as an artist, and to find your own personal style?
That was my biggest goal. All the guys I worked with and under were legendary – they each had such a distinct style. I just wanted to create my own thing that was quintessentially me and projected my vibe and what I was into. There are so many insanely talented artists out there and it’s crazy to try and compete, so to be the best wasn’t ever a goal. It was more to just hone in on making my style recognizable and true to what I loved about tattooing.
How many years were you an apprentice and how did that process mold you and set you up for this extremely successful career?
I would say somewhere between two to three years. I was the first one there, the last one to leave and did everything that needed to be done for Mark and the guys. I started at the bottom of the totem pole and put my head down and put in work to earn my place and respect, as well as paying homage and respect to those above me. I think it turned out great for me because I never wanted to have fame or notoriety. I wasn’t trying to live up to some end result. I just put in 100 percent day in, day out, and had faith that putting in hard work gets you the results you deserve. Nowadays, these wannabes just buy a machine online and copy popular tattoo styles and call themselves tattoo masters overnight. It makes me laugh.
In your opinion, what is it about apprenticeship that makes it a necessary process for the art of tattooing?
The apprenticeship is so important because not only does it instill the pride and ethos of this culture you are contributing to, but it also passes along the roots and history of those before you – passing the torch down the lineage and preserving something sacred. I mean it sounds cliché, but it rings very true: pay your dues, earn your place. I still consider myself an apprentice. I learn new things all the time and feel humbled by what I see others doing. There are so many culture vultures that see something shiny and want to be a part of it without having helped it stay pristine. They seem to overlook what makes this art so special.
As one of the most sought-after tattoo artists in the world, how humbling is it for you to know that you’ve only been doing this for seven years? What’s next for Dr. Woo?
It’s surreal. I’m humbled and thankful for everything in my life. I also feel like I’ve only just begun. There is so much more on the horizon in terms of evolving my brand and working on very select projects that are an extension of what I’m most passionate about outside of tattooing. You’ll just have to wait and see…
What can we expect for the future of tattooing? Are there any other tattoo artists that our readers should keep an eye out for over the next couple years?
One thing I’ve seen with tattooing over the years is that it moves and contorts with the times and always stays relevant. Different styles and trends come and go, but artists will always ride along and adapt with it and keep it going. Plus, the fanbase only grows and grows. There are so many incredible artists out there emerging daily that my mind is constantly blown. I’d rather keep an eye on those who got us here like Freddy Negrete, Mark Mahoney, Rick Walters and Mike Brown, just to name a few.
- Andrew Arthur