Dr. Woo has changed the tattoo industry, not only by tattooing Hollywood heavy hitters like Miley Cyrus, Hailey Bieber and Demi Lovato, but collaborating with big brands like Converse and Lamborghini. And just last week, Woo presented at Adobe MAX, the world's largest creative conference, to discuss how he uses applications like Adobe Scan and Acrobat to assist his on-the-go lifestyle as a global artist. We caught up with the busy tattooer to learn how his journey in the art world began and how his unique approach to tattooing caught on like wildfire.
Who were you as a kid and where did your interest in art come from?
I’m first generation to two parents who immigrated here. I had a rigid household growing up, it wasn’t super creative centric. Growing up in the public school system of Los Angeles, I grew an affinity to drawing and was innately more of a creative. I had to fight for it a bit, but now we’re here.
How did you start getting tattooed and what did your family think?
The family was not too happy about it. My first tattoos were from my friend Chris and we were doing stick-n-pokes when we were eleven or twelve after school. One time, we were in my bathroom at home and my dad came home early from work. We locked ourselves in the bathroom and hid from him. Then when he saw us come out, he was so confused. At that time, the last thing I wanted my dad to know was that I was making tattoos on myself. From there, we just grew into it. All of my friends got tattoos early and it became a competitive thing, who had the most tattoos. Getting tattoos, skateboarding and going to music shows were part of our teenage years.
How did you start getting tattooed by Mark Mahoney?
Mark was one of the guys that my group of friends were all getting tattooed by. We grew up twenty minutes from Los Angeles and had access to getting tattooed from the best. My friend John actually worked at the shop, he was a piercer. We would all go hangout and spend time in the shop. Then, after many years, Mark asked if I wanted to apprentice for him.
What were your initial thoughts when he asked you to be his apprentice? It must have been a pretty big honor, considering Mark Mahoney is a legend in the tattoo industry.
100%. It’s like saying, I never wanted to be a lawyer but if I got a scholarship to the best law school, I would do it. That’s how it was with Mark, I didn’t think that I could pass up this opportunity.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned as his apprentice?
Looking back now, it was respecting the craft and understanding those put in years of their life to give us this platform. It wasn’t easy to be a tattoo artist back then. Now you can can be a tattoo artist without a formal apprentice, just by YouTubing things. I don’t feel like most kids have an understanding of the background of these artists. Their tattoo work is so exceptional, but that’s because older generations have provided room for us to grow. I always try to remember to respect the art, the pedigree, the craft and all the people before us who put in the time to make it possible.
How did you take inspiration from Mark Mahoney’s style and make it your own?
I was born in LA, the home of fine-line black-and-grey, and Mark is one of the champions of the single needle. Obviously, Freddy Negrete is the Godfather of it all. It was an honor and a blessing working alongside those guys, but also very daunting. How do you carve a name for yourself next to legends like that?
I just focused on doing my own thing. I took notes on their aesthetic and technical application, then applied it to different motifs and designs that weren’t as common at the time. It wasn’t a set intention, I just wanted to do the best that I could and I had faith that the outcome was going to be something I could be proud of.
How does it feel that your work has opened the door to so many people who wouldn’t have otherwise gotten tattooed?
It’s cool that you can neutralize something that maybe was taboo and open communication both ways. When I was growing up, not only were tattoos super taboo but having a creative career was taboo in my household. Going from then to now, it’s a triumphant feeling. There was a time where I was only tattooing heavily tattooed people and now, the amount of people getting their first tattoos from me is almost more than people who are collectors. It’s interesting to see people from all walks of life getting tattooed.
After being at Shamrock Social Club for many years, how did it feel to open up a private studio?
It was definitely a scary feeling. When you’re under someone else’s roof for so long, that’s all you know. So it was definitely a big risk. It was sad to leave a place that you’re so comfortable with and are so grateful for. But Hideaway is cool. It’s my own personal laboratory and have a bit more freedom. As an adult you grow and different things grow with you, so sometimes your environment needs to grow as well. Now, Hideaway is my place to think and create, just like my home base.
Another big accomplishment in your career was branching out to collaborating with major fashion brands like Converse. Why do you think a lot of brands are turning to tattooing?
I think it’s the same way they look to skateboarding as well. If it’s something that resonates with exploration and creativity, they’re drawn to it. And tattoo artists are some of the most creative people that I know. They’re constantly being challenged by ideas to create an image. And I think lifestyle wise, we’re pretty free people and have an interesting perspective on life. Maybe earlier in my career, it was a little bit different than now. But we’re just artists for hire. We wake up and make a living by drawing on people. That creates a mood and a lifestyle that I think is pretty interesting. With outside companies, they want a piece of that.
How have these collaborations allowed you to share a side of yourself that you haven’t been able to through tattooing?
It’s a different canvas, a different landscape, a different approach to my personal art and design. I think everything has its own place and my views on how I would like to express myself in fashion are a little different than how it would be tattoo wise. They’re a great exercise in how I can have a voice with a different tone.