Once associated with convicts, sailors and gangsters, tattoos have in recent years evolved into a mainstream accessory. Helping to lead the way is Brian Woo, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist known as Dr Woo.
Woo, who has just arrived after a visit to Tokyo, is in Hong Kong for a pop-up exhibition with Landmark Men. He has curated a pop-up space “The Doctor’s Office”, featuring his favourite tattoo works. The exhibition runs from October 20 to 23.
Hailed as the most in-demand artist in the world, Woo is known for his single-needle tattoos in black and grey. In comparison to more traditional tattoo forms, Woo’s are incredibly fine, done as if by a fine mechanical pencil. The style is instantly recognisable for its graceful quality – eschewing bolder visual statements for lighter, smaller and more subtle forms.
It is this level of precision that has drawn celebrities to his studio, including G-Dragon, Edison Chen Koon-hei and David Beckham. Such is the hype that there is a waiting list of a year.
Woo is looking to translate his brand into one-off projects and product releases. They include his collaboration late last year with furniture brand Modernica where he designed a fibreglass chair, as well as a sunglasses collaboration with Thierry Lasry which was released in March this year.
“I’ve always been interested in sign painting and calligraphy. They are timeless in design and a true craft using art to put food on the table. I’m also inspired by the painter Noah Davis, fashion designer Hedi Slimane, the new creative direction of Gucci, Dries van Noten and Matthew Williams.”
Woo grew up in the north of Malibu, where he was exposed to a strong skateboarding culture, something that influences his style today which is a mix of Hypebeast street edge and a chill west-coast vibe.
“I decided to work in fashion, because I was young and spontaneous, and discipline was so daunting. So I felt it was better to have some real life experience.”
Six years later, and still struggling to make a living, he gave up. He eventually caught the eye of tattoo artist, Mark Mahoney of Shamrock Social Club, who offered him an apprenticeship.
Woo explains: “I was so honoured to be asked by Mark. I think that he saw that we had similar interests in art and fashion, and that maybe I would bring that aesthetic to the shop.”
During his three-year apprenticeship, Woo cleaned up after the senior tattoos artists and sterilised their equipment.
“Mark taught me that you have to work hard for what you want, and nothing comes for free. He taught me to be a good family man and be accountable for myself. This is on top of all the priceless tattoo skills I learnt.”
One of Woo’s most meaningful tattoos was inked by Mahoney himself, a portrait of his grandfather on his forearm. Mahoney’s influence on Woo is profound, as it was his fine-line tattoos that gave Woo the impetus to learn single-needle tattooing.
The meteoric rise in his career is down to timing as well as his skill. He is working at a time when tattoos are much more socially acceptable than they were. Social media has also a played a role, with stars such as Cara Delevingne, Miley Cyrus and Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke showing off their Dr Woo tattoos online.
Woo now has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, who read his daily updates of family, travel adventures and tattoos.
“I never feel like I’m where I want to be – there is more to conquer and work to be done. That is what fuels me, to strive to be bigger and better,” Woo says.