INKED: How did tattooing become a part of your life?
MARK MAHONEY: I used to hang around with a greaser gang in my neighborhood. We were in Massachusetts so tattooing was illegal, and the guys would go to Rhode Island to get tattooed. I was maybe 14 and going down there with the older guys.
Was it love at first sight?
As soon as I walked into Buddy Mott's tattoo shop in Rhode Island I knew that was what I needed to do. It was like an epiphany. I could always draw, you know, and I knew I was going to end up doing something with art and shit, but not until I walked in there did I know for sure. It took me a while to get somebody to give me a machine, but the seed was planted right then and there. It never wavered. I never wanted to be a rock star or anything after that. I wanted to be a tattooer.
Who gave you that first machine?
One of the older guys from the neighborhood, Mark Herlehy, had joined the Navy. He was a great artist. He'd picked up some equipment and knowledge in his travels. He came back and had me do a back piece on him for my first tattoo. Now he has a tattoo shop in New Hampshire. He's run it by himself for about 30 years, drawing every tattoo on freehand.
A back piece is pretty ambitious for a first tattoo.
It was really more like half a back piece. [Laughs.] I just wanted it so bad. At the time I was like, "What the fuck?" I'm not that bold an individual. When I think about the stuff that I did that early, it scares me now. I just wanted it so bad that common sense shit never occurred to me.
So was that the official start to your career?
I started professionally in, like, '77, tattooing full-time in the motorcycle clubhouses in Boston. Then I went to New York and worked out of a little pad on Elizabeth Street on the Lower East Side. I was hanging around with the CBGB's set. Then I came out here to the West Coast in about 1980.
Was it a drastic change moving from the East Coast to out west?
It was, you know. I remember, when I was working for the bikers, that every time I saw a really beautiful tattoo with bright colors and all that stuff it was always from The Pike in Long Beach. I wanted to improve my skills so I figured that's where I needed to go. And you know, I was hanging out with Johnny Thunders and Sid Vicious and those guys on the Lower East Side, as well as my biker friend from Massachusetts, so when I got to Long Beach, my friends were kind of the same thing—the outlaws, the L.A. punk rockers, and the old, gray-beard motorcycle guys. I guess in some ways it was different and in some ways it was the same.
What was the biggest difference?
It was really the first time I saw the fine-line, black-and-gray tattoo stuff. I think I had seen, like, one fine-line tattoo that Johnny Thunders had. It was just some initials that I think Bob Roberts did on him. I had never seen any of that east L.A. black-and-gray shading until I got here in 1980. I flipped my wig when I saw that.
Did you know right then that was going to be your trademark style?
Since I was a kid, when I'd get a box of crayons, the black one would be gone before I'd even touch the colored ones. I wanted to figure that into tattooing.
What's the main difference you see in tattooing since you got started?
The main difference is the motherfuckin' magnitude of it. In Long Beach, the police department would come in with a picture of a cadaver and they could pretty much tell what tattoo shop they got tattooed at. There was maybe a half a dozen of them between South Orange County and Ventura. The old-timers could look at it and say, "Oh yeah, that was old Scurvy Joe up in Ventura." That seems like the Stone Age compared to now. Now there are a thousand guys just in Hollywood, probably.