Full Photo Gallery Follows the Text
Mark Mahoney – A discussion with and photos by Adam Goldberg
Two creatives, one, Adam Goldberg, a writer, actor, director and musican, and the other, Mark Mahoney, a tattooer (and sometimes actor, see Black Mass) meet at the revered Shamrock Social Club. They collaborate on Goldberg’s latest ink then discuss the ephemeral quality of tattoos and kill the concept of cool.
GOLDBERG: OK we’re recording…“Hi Mark!” This isn’t awkward, we’re just having a perfectly normal conversation.
MAHONEY: Let’s see what we can do to stifle that.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, put two recording devices between us.
GOLDBERG: Okay, I was trying to figure out the first time we met, and I think I know when it was.
MAHONEY: I think you came down to 3rd Street, to the original Shamrock, maybe 22 years ago. Yeah, I didn’t tattoo you, but you came down with Bobby. We have to talk about Bobby.
GOLDBERG: Bobby Pastorelli is how we know each other. I was doing a show called Double Rush. Bobby and I got really close. He was like my hip dad. I don’t mean he was like my dad if he were hip, he was my cool school, basically. He had this beautiful Archangel Michael tattoo you did, it was just gorgeous.
MAHONEY: He really was a battle of dark and light.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, so I met you there but by the time you tattooed me the shop closed and you tattooed me in the back of a T-shirt shop.
MAHONEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, on La Brea, in between rehab and trying to get my thing back together.
GOLDBERG: Right. But over the years I’d collect pieces, like “I’m in New Orleans, I’m gonna get a fucking tattoo in New Orleans,” and then I would regret it and then you would cover it up. And then, “Oh, it’s New Year’s Day 2001, I’m in the Catskills. Let’s see if there’s a tattoo artist in the Catskills.” At the time I was trying to collect vintage flash with a spin on it.
MAHONEY: But that’s a natural thing to want to get tattooed when you’re out on the road. It’s kind of the essence of the tattoo business.
GOLDBERG: I guess it is, but ultimately, the reason I have collected so many tattoos, in part, is really because of you. So I guess you’re to thank, or to blame, depending on who you talk to.
MAHONEY: Well, I’m glad that you’re working so much this year so I don’t feel so bad.
GOLDBERG: But these days the idea of going to someone else to get tattooed seems strange to me. With you, you’re buying a ticket into a whole experience. Are most of your clients return customers?
MAHONEY: Yeah, I mean, I give a fuck about the people that I tattoo, personally. I think you and I in particular share a lot in common. I got that right away, like we both like the old shit and we both love Robert Pastorelli. I think you’re one of the only people in the world, or the only person in the world that I share a tattoo with. We both got a tattoo in remembrance of Bobby. So that’s something pretty special.
GOLDBERG: I remember the day I found out he died. I didn’t know who to talk to, so I came here. I just had to give you a hug. And it was particularly weird because it’s a bit mysterious what happened. I don’t know how much people know, but his girlfriend, who was the mother of one of his two little girls, shot herself in front of him. That’s all that I knew, and after that he went away and I didn’t hear from. I finally spoke to him for the first time since that had happened while I was getting a tattoo in your chair years later. He called you, I think he wanted to come in to get some work done, and you just put me on the phone with him. It was kind of a heavy moment and a weird coincidence. About a week or two later, I was editing I Love Your Work, he called me, we planned on getting together and then he fucking died. He had been supposedly clean. I guess the theory is that you’re clean for that long, then you use and your body can’t handle it, right?
MAHONEY: Yeah. But I had tattooed him a couple of nights before. He seemed OK to me. But he did mention that the last thing he said to her was fucking mean. He was carrying that cross.
GOLDBERG: I felt like the loss of Bobby, even though I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, got us sort of back in the pattern of seeing each other a lot more.
MAHONEY: I think he kind of meant for that to happen. That’s why he called while you were here.
GOLDBERG: I loved being around him but I always felt a little nervous, a little shy, like he was the Alpha Dog. One time he, rightfully, fucking pecked at me and I kept my shit straight the rest of the time I knew him. I’m older now so if I’m cocky or an asshole, I’m just a grumpy old man, but I was this weird combination of being totally insecure, feeling like I really shouldn’t be on the set or “I don’t like the way I look,” or “I don’t like the way I sound.”
MAHONEY: And the flipside being…
GOLDBERG: And the flipside being “I’m a badass, I’m owning this shit.” I’ve always had anxiety issues, but in a weird way sometimes your coping mechanism ends up being just as strong and powerful as the thing that makes you feel vulnerable.
MAHONEY: I think that’s just the artistic temperament, to have both of those things going on.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, yeah, actually I’ve thought that about that with you, this dichotomy. Many people would say that you totally epitomize cool, you epitomize the hip aesthetic, and at the same time you’re like, a gentle and insanely sensitive guy.
MAHONEY: You know me well enough to know what’s a front.
GOLDBERG: That’s an interesting conversation to have. What is cool, and is there such thing as really cool, being really detached, really not giving a shit? Because I used to think about this with Kerouac all the time, but then you read Kerouac and you’re like “This guy is a fucking mess! He’s not cool, he’s a fucking wreck!” James Dean, wreck!
MAHONEY: Cool is like, an outdated concept. Fuckin’ cool ain’t cool no more. Frenchie [Mark’s younger daughter], and the other 14-year-old girls, they don’t like cool guys, they like nerds and shit.
GOLDBERG: So I could have just stayed really fucking nerdy? I was like 16, and 5’2”, no girls for miles, smart, but stressed out and slicking my hair back, listening to Art Tatum with the windows rolled up in my car on lunch break, pretending it was 1945 or something. But for all intents and purposes, categorized as, like, a clown or intellectual guy or whatever. But when I was 19 and I put this fake tattoo on me for a scene in acting class, it was like “Oh shit” and that was pretty much that. Got my first tattoo the same year. Whether it was an affect or not I was hooked. Now though, there’s no boundaries because everybody has a tattoo.
MAHONEY: I’m afraid, and I do think about this a lot, that for a thousand years or at least when I started, that you got tattooed to be different, to stand out, and now I’m afraid that people get tattooed to be like their friends, to blend in.
GOLDBERG: Does it make you enjoy it less?
MAHONEY: You know, the act of doing it is the same.
GOLDBERG: I’m amazed because you do this incredibly detailed work and you’re talking the whole time.
MAHONEY: I get into some type of Zen or whatever. My back will go out once a year, it’s excruciating, but I’ll sit down to tattoo and it won’t hurt. Like monks who sit and study on a mountaintop.
GOLDBERG: Things are more valuable when they’re rare, right? Do you feel like the work that you’re doing can’t possibly have the same value?
MAHONEY: There are so many great black-and-grey tattooers in just a 10 mile radius, it’s daunting. There was a time me and Freddy (Negrete) and Jack (Rudy) were the only people in the world that did portraits, now there’s a gazillion. For me, it is about the process. Even if the tattoo isn’t that gratifying, the experience can be.
GOLDBERG: It’s hard to find an analogy for tattoo art because it’s ephemeral. It exists for the span of someone’s life. There’s kind of an inherent value in that. The world’s gotten more cluttered with every type of expression or at least cluttered with venues for it. Everybody’s got a movie camera in their pocket. I do it too, I make these short 15-second Instagram videos, but I also shoot with my 40-year-old Beaulieu 16mm camera.
MAHONEY: I like using 40-year-old tattoo machines better than these new ones because I think they work better.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, I dig the accessibility of the all-modern tools, but at the end of the day, I love shooting film when I take photos because I think it looks better and it makes me a better, more disciplined shooter. I have to be more selective with my choices and have to really know my “machine.”
MAHONEY: That sort of gets to the question of craftsman or artist. I think one of the things that attracted me to tattooing is that it wasn’t some high art. It is a craft. You use a tool, you might draw the thing on but I like to think of it as a craft. Col. Todd, who I worked with down on the Pike, would say we were tattooers, not tattoo artists. Tattoo artist was kind of an insult. I always identified myself as a tattooer.
GOLDBERG: But your eye is exquisite. Every time I’ve given you a photograph, you manage to reduce this insane amount of information and somehow turn it into a concise image. You must have been drawing a lot as a kid. And did you know right away you were talented?
MAHONEY: Yeah, I guess I knew I could draw, my dad could draw. I remember watching the JFK funeral lying on the carpet in front of the TV and my dad was teaching me how to draw biplanes and pirate ships. I drew a lot during those long Boston winters.
GOLDBERG: How did you hear about tattooing?
MAHONEY: An older guy from my neighborhood, Mark Hurlehey, a greaser, had moved from Boston to New York. He was going down to get tattooed. I think he was 17, I was 14. We all drove down and, you know, as soon as I walked into the shop, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. One second.
GOLDBERG: What was the tattoo scene like in Boston then?
MAHONEY: Nonexistent, it was illegal. There was a guy that I was aware of that was tattooing in “Lynn Lynn the City of Sin.” So it made for good business as soon as I started.
GOLDBERG: Because it was illegal there too, what was the New York scene like at the time?
MAHONEY: Bikers and stuff. The punk rock shit was starting. It didn’t really happen until I came to LA in 1980. I think the California punks were more predisposed to getting tattooed. The punk scene in New York was more intellectuals and artists and thinkers, whereas the California punks were more like street kids out here. Their dads probably had tattoos. The kids in New York, their dads probably didn’t….
GOLDBERG: Yeah, but meanwhile in the early 20th century so much of the tattoo scene was down on the Bowery, where CBGBs and all that would end up.
MAHONEY: Yeah, that’s the Holy Land, the Lower East Side.
GOLDBERG: Man, I just can’t imagine how much you’ve seen the world change since you started.
MAHONEY: It was literally nothing but bikers and hoodlums. 200 percent.
GOLDBERG: Right, right. So, you’re about to tattoo somebody, your next client, who doesn’t know what they want…. That actually happened for the tattoo that we did for this piece. I came in with my old friend James. He had an ambitious Frank Sinatra portrait for you to do.
MAHONEY: He was such a sweet guy.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, and I had a piece in mind, this big Bogart still from In a Lonely Place. But there’s no way you could do both that day, so we vamped and I came up with this idea to take a 4×5 Polaroid of my Speed Graphic camera in the mirror, and you turned it into a tattoo. Anyway, this guy’s about to come in with a blank slate, what are you gonna do?
MAHONEY: We got a sleeve started on him….
GOLDBERG: The sleeve thing is weird these days. Do people come in and say…well, I know they do, I see it on Instagram, they’ll say, “I’m halfway through this sleeve.”
MAHONEY: It seems like that’s a mid 2000s thing, you know. There started to be TV shows and people would come in with nothing and say, “I want to get a sleeve.” How do you know you want a sleeve? Down, boy.
GOLDBERG: I would imagine that over the years have you become more selective about the clientele?
MAHONEY: Y’know, uh….not really.
The rest of the photo gallery was shot by Adam Goldberg, please do enjoy.