We sat down with Dr. Woo at this year’s iteration of Art Basel Hong Kong to learn more about the rapidly rising tattoo artist.
When I first entered the 3125C Galleria in Hong Kong, I was immediately struck by a cacophony of sight and sound. The music was bumping and the crowd was loud, but amongst all this was one unexpected sound: the buzz of a tattoo gun. The spartan gallery space — nothing more than a large square with floor-to-ceiling-windows on two sides — was adorned with artwork by Sam Friedman, Araki, Devin Troy, Scott Campbell, Jose Parla, Cali DeWitt, Phil Frost, and Jonio Takahashi; collaborative capsule collections with P.A.M., Cali DeWitt, and Emotionally Unavailable; and a curated selection of treats and gifts not usually available in Hong Kong. Adding to the atmosphere was DJ PREPARE, who was manning the decks during the entirety of the pop-up. And then there was Dr. Woo, right in the middle of it all.
From afar, it struck me that watching Dr. Woo was akin to watching performance art. While attendees milled about looking at the art and clothes, Dr. Woo was patiently tattooing a lucky fan, oblivious to everything around him and completely focused on his work. It was in this space that I got a chance to talk to Dr. Woo — mid-tattoo, no less — about his trip to Hong Kong, how he got to working with Edison Chen, and what he thinks the future holds in store.
What brings you to Hong Kong?
I’ve always been planning a trip here. I kind of always felt a connection to the city even though I haven’t been back to Asia. It reminds me of a more progressive culture as opposed to the traditional Chinese culture that I was brought up in. Hong Kong was kind of a Westernized hub of what I perceived China was. I don’t know if that’s true but growing up that’s how I looked at it.
Then just meeting Ed and having a lot of mutual friends out here, I knew I wanted to bring this brand or whatever out here. We kind of talked about it but it was never anything serious. Then kind of last second we decided maybe just offer up a few rare appointments because I never travel. The only place you can get a tattoo from me is back in LA and we thought it would be cool to meet the city with Ed hosting and here we are.
How did you and Edison get to know each other in the first place?
Actually it was just through mutual friends – a lot of mutual friends. And he brought one of his rapper friends in to get tattooed and we found that we know a lot of the same people and that was that.
In terms of tattooing here in Hong Kong, you’ve got an interesting setup right in the middle of this gallery and retail space. Have you done anything like this before and are there any unique challenges to it?
Well I think any tattoo that I do outside of my own element – outside my place of work — is hard because the lighting is different; your muscle memory is different; the tools are a little different; plus you’re so far away from home mentally so it’s a little harder to execute because you’re more aware of your surroundings. But you know, you always gotta get it done so it’s not that big of a deal.
So did you bring all of your equipment with you or did you borrow some?
Mostly I just brought my machines and everything else is disposable.
Since you’ve been here, have you had a chance to check out Hong Kong and the local tattoo scene?
I really haven’t. I’ve just been so stuck doing the work that I haven’t really ventured out but I did have someone helping me – a local tattoo artist – and he was really cool. It’s always nice to meet other people that do what you do and to see how different it is in different places.
Can you describe in your own words what your tattoo style is and how you got to it?
The technical term would be fine line black and grey. I’ve gone on to do a lot of more technical line work and mini reproductions. I guess its a little more geometric.
That seems to be what you’re best known for.
Which is kind of crazy. The fine line delicate stuff I see but the geometric stuff has been going on way longer than I have. So I can’t really take any credit for that. I mean I wouldn’t really take credit for anything. Tattooing is an age-old craft. They say tattooing and prostitution are the two oldest jobs so I’m sure at some point in time it’s been done before.
So then why do you think people have gravitated towards you so much? It seems like in the last few years your profile has really exploded.
That’s a hard question because sometimes I wonder the same thing. I didn’t really go out of the way to do press or anything like that, it all kind of came to me. I think the key is I try to curate tattoos as a lifestyle brand. I want the idea of a tattoo to bleed through more than just the image on the skin. It incorporates a whole lifestyle and aesthetic and personal taste. And that’s important to me because its something I’m into. So subconsciously maybe just through that, it reads through and certain people can see through everything else and get that vibe and they like it. It’s a little different from the typical tattoos that people see. Just a slight difference – nothing too crazy. Replacing an ingredient in the recipe — just a small change, but yea it tastes different. Think that’s kind of what I did.
It doesn’t seem like anyone is interested in creating a show with integrity.
Based on that, can someone walk into the shop and get say a Sailor Jerry-style tattoo or something else?No, I do anything. That’s the thing people misconceive. I was brought up as a streetshop tattooer. You bring anything to me right there and I’ll try do my best to do it right there. I love doing old Sailor Jerry tattoos. Those were the first ones I started doing when I started tattooing and even before I started the painting, the art I was doing was all that.
Can you tell us what its like working at Shamrock Social Club and working with Mark Mahoney?
What an honor it is actually. It’s intimidating and I feel grateful to work alongside Mark and Freddy Negrete. Mark was a big factor in letting me know that in tattooing you don’t have to be stuck as a typical cliche tattooer. You can be into art and fashion and music and it all somehow inspires you and your work. I learned that from him just by watching him so he’s a very big influence.
Speaking of art, we’re in a gallery space and standing from afar and watching you tattoo, there’s a theatric, almost performance art-like quality to it. Would you agree with that?
I guess you could say that but I feel like it’s just a… The way I look at tattoos is it’s a craft first and an art second. So more or less the act of doing it in a gallery is art but what I’m literally doing is just practicing my craft.
Thinking of the future, do you ever think about opening your own shop?
Yeah, I mean that’s kind of the goal. I think shop-wise, I always try to stay true to where I come from and I don’t think owning a shop would necessarily translate into a brand – it would just be another tattoo shop. So I don’t know. I still think the future is very unpredictable at this moment.
Would it be safe to say we won’t see you on some TV show like Miami Ink?
Yea, I’ve turned down several TV show offers already.
Okay, so that’s not in the future for you?
Unless there’s a project that I really feel passionate about but at the moment it doesn’t seem like anyone is interested in creating a show with integrity.
Are there any contemporaries of yours that you think don’t get the attention they deserve?
Yea, two of my favorite tattoo artists right now are Sven Rayen, I think he’s in Belgium, and then this Australian girl called Jess Swaffer. She does more traditional stuff but I love her work. It’s very identifiable – I’m all about personal style. I don’t even have to be into the style of stuff you do but I love when a person’s personal aesthetic shines through in every piece they do.
Talking about the future again, do you think that you might do more temporary tattoo residencies in the future?
Yea, I think the world is getting smaller and I’d like to explore every part of it. I definitely like it here.
What’s the strangest tattoo request you’ve ever had?
There’s so many different things but the one that really sticks out in my mind it was not so much the tattoo that was strange it was just the request and the placement. It was a French guy and he really wanted a pink and blue butterfly on his lower back. But he kept asking me if it was a manly tattoo while I was doing it. But I guess there’s nothing tougher than getting a tattoo like that being a straight man. That’s pretty hardcore to pull that off.
Are there any tattoos that you’ve done in the last few years that you’re really proud of?
I really like this train I did on my friend’s back. You know, I like my work but I think as an artist or someone that always strives to do better you never look at it and feel fully content. You always look at what you can do to to make it better. I probably shouldn’t be saying it to my customers thinking I’m not 100% with the work that I’ve done but in order to grow I think you need to always critique what you’ve done and the next time try to make it better.
James Shorrock for Highsnobiety.com