/ Art

Interview by Jared Freedman. Photography by Stefan Kocev. 12/14/2016


Dr. Woo - Eighty-Nine Magazine

EIGHTY-NINE: How did you become a tattoo artist? How did you pick that as your medium for art?

WOO: I think I look at tattooing as more of a craft. It’s the way I make my living, but it’s more of a collaboration with the client. It’s not fully a representation of a complete art output for me, so I look at it a little bit differently than as a brush to a canvas or a pen and ink, you know what I mean? But it was a challenge, for sure, and it was very intimidating growing up getting tattooed by Mark [Mahoney] and all of these legends. Because that world at that time was very much a sub-sub-subculture, you know? So I think that’s what really drew me in.

EIGHTY-NINE: So you obviously enjoy the collaborative process.



WOO: Yeah, you can’t just do whatever you want. You have a certain set of tools and skills and then you apply them. If you went to three different tattoo artists and you had the same concept, we would all do it differently, you know? You give them the same picture and say “Do this,” it’d still have a feeling of individuality between each guy, even though it’s the same thing. Tattooing to me is kind of that. It’s how you execute the design your way, your proficiency, your technique, so that’s probably my draw to it.

EIGHTY-NINE: To get an appointment with you can take up to six months. When someone finally gets in your chair, seems like it would be a lot of pressure to deliver.

WOO: Yeah, lots of expectations … it’s hard. So when they’re actually sitting there, they’re excited and they’re happy—you have to really live up to that and blow their mind, and after a while it’s taxing for me. It’s a lot of focus. It’s kind of, in a weird way, like being an NBA player. No matter how you’re feeling, no matter how hard the competition is, you have to try to win every time, every game, every quarter, you know? I can’t do one shitty one or do one great tattoo and then retire. They’re kind of putting their trust in you and that’s a lot of responsibility.

EIGHTY-NINE: When did you first realize you had a talent for the arts?

WOO: I think in elementary school you start drawing, start doodling, and the teacher starts designating you for this project, and so-and-so will write it and you guys will organize it, but you will draw the picture, you know what I mean? Then in art class in high school I got along really well with the art teacher and it kind of became clear that my mind wasn’t studying history and math very well, but art was the language that was very fluid for me.

EIGHTY-NINE: And at what point do you start creating a style?

WOO: When I started tattooing, all of my kind of tattoo idols that I looked up to, they all had a very distinct style. If I liked it or not, it was irrelevant. It was very clear you had to have a very defined signature. In this business, it’s a lot of replication and copying; people see something and they go “Oh, I like that for myself, so I want the tattoo artist to do the same thing.” It becomes just a mess, you know? So for me, it was focusing more on just doing my own thing. Obviously there’s a lot of outside influence that’s deliberate and subconscious, but I just would say I’m going to do what I think looks cool and eventually it evolved. It wasn’t an overnight kind of thing, just after a while you just kind of develop a look, an aesthetic.

EIGHTY-NINE: Via social media we seem to get the opportunity to see who people are by just seeing their accounts, but in your words, what are the things that are most important to you? How do you want to be perceived?



WOO: My internal battle is to always do what I personally have a passion for and not try to be affected by outside opinion. Fashion, art or music—I mean, everything is very guided now. Everything’s available visually. Instagram, social media—it’s like one giant salad bar. I just want to be me, and I try to articulate that. I like this kind of music, I like to watch these kinds of shows, I like to eat this kind of food, and I like to do all these kinds of things—that’s me. Social media is great at communicating but horrible too, you know, because everything is kind of just being blasted at you. You wake up, you look at a screen and it’s there. Sometimes it’s really cool, but mostly it’s not. It’s so repetitive—you just get hammered all day long, so it’s a lot of confusion but it’s also kind of cool too, because of the freedom of expression, and everyone has access. I love that part of the sharing.

EIGHTY-NINE: How about being a dad—how has that affected your work?

WOO: I found out that my chick was pregnant when I was 30, and up until that point I was literally just partying every night and tattoos paid my bills for the next day. It was kind of more of a punk attitude toward life, you know? And then once I knew I was having a kid, you have a totally different set of priorities. I started concentrating more on work. Before it was like, let me make sure I’m good for the next week or month; now I’m like, I got to make sure the next 20 years is solid for my family, you know—just lay the foundation so they are happy and they are comfortable and they have the best quality of life and making sure they are good. As cliché as it sounds, it’s like growing up. You’re like, OK, I’m a grown-up, I’m an adult. I have to get health insurance for everyone and pay my taxes. I remember when we’d just wake up and be like, “What am I going to do today?” You call all your friends, like, “What you got up?” You got too much time, go to a bar, go shopping or “Hey, let’s go skate.” “What are we going to do tonight?” And then after a while, you’re like, “Damn, I’m sick of going out every night.” Now I’m like, I don’t even know when I have a night to go out. I got bath and story time to handle.

EIGHTY-NINE: I know you’re from L.A. but you seem to address often your love for Japan. What do you love about it?

WOO: I love Japan because everyone is kind of on the same page, from a young kid to an old person. They’re all bound by what seems like a set of rules and a work ethic. In L.A. the waiters are just biding their time till they can become an actor. But if you’re in Japan you’re a barista at a coffee shop and you’re just like, “I’m going to be the best barista ever till the day I die,” you know? And it’s cool.

EIGHTY-NINE: When you’re in Japan or when you’re in other countries, is there a common thread of the tattoos people want?

WOO: I think people typically just want what they saw from Instagram. They just kind of looked at something, studied it, and so when they’re up there it’s like, “I want this one, that one, this one too.”

EIGHTY-NINE: You travel the world working—what are your takeaways from working from the road?



WOO: I think it’s just putting your mind outside of the daily routine, and visuals and smells and sounds somehow just kind of marinate differently. It just kind of tunes your outlook a little different. When you’re in your own studio or just working day after day, you just start becoming a machine, you know? So I think traveling is nice to break it up, kind of air yourself out. You might just come across something that you don’t see every day because you’re so far away, and just to see how different people react. You know, people in L.A., you can walk up to someone and have an encounter. You kind of already know what that encounter might be like even if you don’t know the person, but if you go to Japan or France, it’s just a little bit of a different variation, and I think that’s good. It’s good for you to just change it up, you know? In a weird way it’s like Indiana Jones—he goes on these crazy adventures, and then he comes back and he’s teaching his class, he’s wearing a suit and glasses like a nerd, but on his desk is like all the stuff from everywhere from his adventure.

EIGHTY-NINE: If you could tattoo anybody throughout time, who would it be?

WOO: Picasso I think would be really interesting. Or maybe Anna Wintour! I just like that idea of someone that is so strong in a position that they kind of define everything around them.