Imagine what your life was like before you had that experience.
I owned my own brand and was creating it. I was just a creative person, and did odd jobs.
Do you think fashion and tattooing are connected?
Because tattoos have such an aesthetic appeal, it is obvious that they tie together. But personal fashion can be different from tattoos overall. Tattoos and personal style are two different things.
Your “personal brand” in tattooing: How did it come about?
In the beginning, it was just trying to keep up. My shop had a pedigree that was second-level. It’s easy to look at an idol and then the next thing, you find yourself working with him. You could definitely see a little bit of “I just need to get better at what I do.” You can then start to really focus in. You could say, “I have to be different!” but it was organic.
How did you become a celebrity in 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. It was the same for every A-toZ celebrity. Being a LA native, I think it is a part of your environment.
Are there any challenges you have encountered in tattooing famous people who are able to share your work with so many?
Working with someone else is like it was for me. A guy who is just a regular man can show up and create more headaches than any famous person. Before the public’s eyes, the owners of tattoos are my first priority.
How important do you believe social media played in your work life?
It wasn’t all that complicated before. To be known, you had to put in a lot of effort. There wasn’t instant access like we now have. It’s easy to pick up a mobile phone now and jump into imagery that wasn’t possible just five years ago. Every year we see incredible growth in knowledge.
This is both a blessing as well as a curse. Because you give away stuff and people grab onto it, it can be difficult to keep your share balanced. The shelf life of the product is much shorter than it was before. If you make one thing and 20 others copy it, then it’s gone. Not just me or tattooing specifically — anything.
Dr. Dr. Woo tattooing Lil Miquela . Photo: @_dr_woo_ /Instagram
Are you able to make a living as a tattoo artist without having to use Instagram? Scroll on for the next step
That would be difficult. However, it would prove difficult. My top priority is still person-to–person relationships and word-of mouth reputation, even in the digital world of communication.
What makes you believe fashion finds its way into your job even when you have formally left it?
While I may be known for one thing. But, like any artist, every creative has a variety of things that push and inspire them. It’s a great feeling to be able connect these different things, and show my creativity in a new way. It’s been a great opportunity to get another chance to make things that way.
Are you imagining a future fashion collaboration?
It’s hard to know. It’s not like you want to be too close to your heroes. It’s like my brain isn’t ready to think at that level. You have to push yourself higher.
Dr. Woo midtattoo. Photo by Viceland
Are there any difficulties in managing your career and your family life with a spouse and 2 children now?
Yes. It’s been crazy to travel, especially now that my job is more international. It’s hard to find the right balance with family back home. They are my family and I love them even when they’re not there. Even though I’m not travelling, I still miss them at work. There is a rule in place that says I can’t leave the country for more than seven days. No matter how long a vacation is, even though it’s for a month, I must return to my home every seven days. One year, I took a longer trip than usual and was missing my family.
Are you adamant that it is more difficult to raise a family within your industry?
Mark Mahoney was a mentor to me and made time for his children and wife. His example was an inspiration to me. He showed me that a non-traditional lifestyle and career can be enjoyed with 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.
It is clear that Mahoney had a profound impact on your personal and professional lives. Would you like to be a mentor for next-generation tattoo artists?
That seems further away to me. Next generation is not as hungry. They just do it. There’s both a positive and a negative side to this. There are many options. You could buy a tattoo maker and learn how to use it.
Nowadays, this is self-declaration. The bio of an Instagram account is nearly true if it contains photos. One can write, “I’ve been doing tattoos for three weeks. But, I want to post a few photos and put ‘tattoo artists’ in my information. Then I’m a professional tattoo artist.” If I were coming up I would
Dream You know the moment I was able to say, “I am a tattoo artist.” Two to three years of experience as a technician, I finally was able say this. I felt it was an act of respect.
It’s more than tattoos. Somebody can make a great sandwich and put their “chef” name under it on Instagram. While I believe it is important to visualise their goals, it should also be done in a responsible manner.
Your advice for aspiring tattoo artists?
You should take lessons from those who are already in the business. It’s not easy because tattooing is so close-knit. The last thing that tattoo artists want to see is more tattooists flooding the market. You should consider an apprenticeship, or spending time listening to elders if you want to be taken seriously.
This attitude that “I don’t need anyone” is especially dangerous when you are just starting out in the game. This attitude is not healthy. It’s a good idea to hang out in a shop and get tattooed with skilled artists. Then, you should listen to their opinions. Do not assume you are an expert.
Tattoos 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.” That was how did you feel?
It was a surprise to me that I’d be featured in this episode so early in my career. This was something I assumed would happen when I turned 50. It was a great honor to be able to share this experience with my idols in tattooing. It was not easy for me to accept this retrospective. 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.”
It is easy to associate “celebrity” tattoo artists with fashion, and it can become a cliché. You can see how hard I worked to get here, I believe. It took years to build it.
Your legacy: What are you hoping to leave?
It is my desire to be remembered as someone who created something out of a love for what I was creating. I want to be remembered for creating something that inspired others. Being a first generation immigrant to this country, and being Asian, there was some culture shock and racism. My experience was not typical of the “You can do whatever you want.”
However, I believe it is important to let people know that you can achieve anything if you work hard and are honest.
For clarity, this interview has been edited.