Los Angeles' most sought-after tattoo artist is reading Dr. Seuss at Silver Lake's Casbah Café. His 4-year-old son has wedged himself between his father's knees and is holding up a smartphone to display one of Seuss' most famous assertions of self: “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”
“Dr. Seuss, huh?” says Dr. Woo, wrapping his arms protectively around his son's torso.
“Yup,” the child says, turning back to the screen.
With the rest of his family sitting a few tables away — his wife of four years and their 5-month-old son — Woo seems a bit unsure how to navigate the intersection of public and private life. In 2013, the 33-year-old's inimitable black-and-gray body art — which he propagates at the Sunset Strip's legendary Shamrock Social Club — began landing him all over the news. In December 2014, The New York Times called Woo the “tattoo artist for the Hollywood set,” as he's inked celebs including Miley Cyrus, Jaime King and Frances Bean Cobain.
Because of this glut of press, the soft-spoken Woo — who wears a silver eagle pendant and gargantuan shamrock ring to offset his all-black ensemble — has gotten used to reciting his origin story.
Born in North Hollywood to Chinese immigrant parents, Woo moved with his family to Agoura Hills when he was about 10. He discovered his predilection for visual art by doodling in the margins of his notebooks at school.
As a teenager, Woo and his friends would come into the city for shows, and to “fart around on Melrose,” he says. Soon they started hanging out at Tattoo Mania — owned by Mark Mahoney, a legend in L.A. gutter-punk cool — and began getting inked. “We had a whole crew of little friends that were getting tattooed,” Woo says, “and it became a competition how many you got.”
Woo opted out of college at 18 to work in fashion, but six years later, Mahoney — who has tattooed both Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — offered him an apprenticeship. “If someone of that caliber offers to teach you,” Woo says, “I think you're like, 'OK,' no matter what it is.”
Mahoney is a pioneer of the single-needle style, a technique that produces such fine black lines that they appear gray. After studying for three years under his mentor, Woo did his first tattoo on one of his friends: a shamrock, on St. Patrick's Day.
Since then, his style has become singular. His intricate work looks like finely detailed pencil drawings, pressed directly off the pages of sketch pads. Lines form down the street when he's at Shamrock Social Club, and Hollywood's elite wait months to book appointments with him.
Woo's success is so recent that he's still searching for a balance between art and income. “The true artists out there, real fine artists, they still stick to not giving a fuck about what anyone thinks,” he says. “It's hard to be that honest.”
Still, Woo is humble. He claims he'll never be as good as his mentors. Instead, he says, “I'll just be my own thing, you know?”