Beyond the Craft: Catching up with Dr. Woo
I slowly follow a black range rover through the valet drop at The Roosevelt Hotel. Couples and groups of friends loiter at the front entrance, The Migos are playing in the lobby, I stand in line at the front desk check in. I have never been to this hotel before, I am not checking into this hotel, I am looking for Dr. Woo’s new private tattoo studio located somewhere in this iconic Hollywood attraction.
I wander past the crowded poolside bar. I try to imagine how a tattoo studio can be so hidden in such a public attraction.
I later ask Woo if he likes keeping his craft private, if there is something special about building an “in the know” that he appreciates. He says, “Yeah sometimes you do get the feeling like you don’t want to become Mass. Everything that I like, you know, you have to discover, it's in the nooks and the crannies.” If there was one nook or one crannie in this hotel, Woo’s studio is just that. I found myself standing in a courtyard, lined with bamboo. I have been instantly transported to what feels like a remote Japanese temple. A traditional wooden gateway welcomes me to the Cabana that is now “Studio X”. Lou reed plays softly as I enter and the smell of aged leather and incense makes me feel as if I am entering someones home.
Dr. Woo immediately joins me in his front sitting area.
Can you tell me how you curated the space?
I think this space was mostly that I didn’t want it to be super elitist or over thought and contrived. It was just kind of "I’m going to get stuff that I like". It doesn’t have to all follow a certain thing. I like a lot of industrial motifs and then modern and the mid century. You know it’s really cool and all, those pieces look all on point together but this is going to be a place where my kids will be running around, my friends come hang out. I don’t want it to be too serious you know? And still I want it to have really cool things that I truly like. So that's kind of how I think about it.
Yeah you’ve created that feeling for sure, Would you call this your dream space?
I think dreams are something you always aspire to that seem unattainable. I feel like maybe not my dream space because once you get to your dream then you need another dream. Maybe this was my dream space before, and now that I am here maybe I have another dream space.
So now if you could picture that next dream studio what would it be like?
Haha I feel like it would be one of those... okay so In Japan you know those temples where you are only wearing robes, and people live there with the monks, and its like a square and everything in the middle is garden space and everyone's rooms are surrounding the courtyard. It’s all lifted on bamboo. That would be cool.
Yeah that would be amazing! Obviously you have developed this world wide following, do you like to travel?
I love it. I love to travel.
Where is your favorite place to visit?
As of right now its Tokyo.
And how has your large social media presence changed your business or craft?
Well, It definitely makes it available. Not necessarily getting tattooed but the information is so available about the work, the brand and the ideology of what this aesthetic is. I think its just accessible, everyone can see it. The net is wider. Even though I still feel the key following are people that really fuck with what I like and what I do is still very niche and it’s not a representative of a big number.
And Do you like keeping your craft private and building this “in the know” aspect.
Yeah sometimes you do get the feeling like you don’t want to become mass. You know, everything that I like I had to discover it. It's in the nooks and the crannies. And that's why growing up as a skater and listening to indie music and punk rock, everything was about finding that cool little thing and not destroying it. It’s a bit tough because you have to ride the balance of sharing and also curating. Its something that I haven't really figured out yet I think.
Well it looks like you’ve got it figured out as far as this space goes. It feels so much more like a home or your bedroom, was that important?
Yeah, it was. And I am going to be here a lot and this is where I work and spend most of my time figuring my steps out. You want a place that you don’t not want to go to. I am surrounding myself with things that I love and then it doesn't feel like your going to a job, its like your going to your safe zone.
Where did you develop your love for fashion and design?
I don’t know I think it was always...well I remember as a kid it was always in drawing and comic books. I used to read comics and look at them and draw in my sketchbook. I think at that time it was appreciating the lines. I knew what I liked and didn't like. I think from that point you can say that was the start. To make a long story short I feel like you know what you like because you know what you don’t like. It sounds really simple but I think it tells a lot about yourself once you realize the things that appeal to you.
As an artist what would you be doing if tattooing wasn’t your craft?
Yeah that's really interesting because I think about that a lot. I think tattooing is quote on quote considered a "low brow" art form or a folk art. And then you have "high brow" art of like abstract painters, contemporary artists, performers and installation artists, which I am a big fan of you know, I love art. Its weird to find where I fit in while being educated on both sides of the line. I do tell myself that I really want to hang some canvases up and get a bunch of mediums and just do it. I don’t know what "IT" would be but the tattoo stuff I do is so disciplined and carefully applied and everything is very mechanical and part of a bigger mechanism. I think that my personal work would be very wild. You know I love like Cy Twombly and all that kind of stuff even Calder, his stuff is very spontaneous.
Yeah for sure, and do you feel like you have been put into a box because of your disciplined style?
Yeah I think so. I think at the time it was so familiar but new, people didn't really know where to categorize it. I think it is really hard to express myself as an artists based off of what type of tattoos I do. The tattoos themselves are a collaborative art. It is me and my client creating this thing. Aside from the geometric circles and lines, which I have more freedom in creating. Everything else is crafted. I am not coming in and just.... you know, art is for arts sake and those things aren't necessarily that, those things are more me wanting to execute the best project for this person.
And as an artist how would you say you want to be perceived? Do you want to be the guy who is the master at single needle or do you want to transcend that image?
Yeah, like I talked about earlier with dreams... you are never content with where you are. Which is maybe something. Like I do obviously want to be that guy but then I also want to transcend that and show that there is a bigger world in my head that I want to share and that I believe in. Going back to Japan, you know these people, these artisans, they perfect what they do and they constantly keep perfecting it, they don’t stray, they stay dedicated and focused and will do that until the day they die. That is so cool and that inspires me a lot. So its kind of this weird push and pull. I should just maybe concentrate on being that forever and continue to get better and better. There's just a yearning for other things that I feel like I want to express and share. I'll figure it out as I go.
goals for 2017?
yeah half way gone.
I know damn. I think I really want to start establishing an international presence. Like I mean a ground zero break through, like touch down, hand to the ground, tangible presence. Whatever that may be I don’t know. I would really like to expand my own personal...I hate calling it a lifestyle brand because its bigger than that but I really want to start creating things that people can hold and touch and take home.
Is this a bigger project outside of tattooing?
Yeah I mean this year I have a colab with converse coming out, that will be for the holidays, which is really cool. I've been pretty reluctant on colabbing with a big commercial project but they have such a good team and converse is such a staple to my childhood. It is such a key part on a more historical scale, its more of a heritage brand which is cool. And yeah, I really just want to limit the amount of things I do. I don’t want to water it down. I do want to start, like that Boro Bear over there, I want to make stuff like that. You know I don’t want to just do a tee shirt or a sweatshirt. Stuff that's like “ oh cool whats the story behind that?” You know? I personally like buying stories.
yeah and you can look at this space and really learn a lot about who you are aside from the tattooing.
Yeah and I think that's it. Its educating people that like my tattoos on also about other things that I like.
Thanks man. It was really great to chat with you about this. Can you walk me a round the space and tell me some of the stories behind all this great stuff.
Yeah lets do it.
Woo walked me around and re-told the great stories behind the items that thoughtfully fill his work space. His now retired motorcycle sitting in the parlor, the wooden dart board from his mom, a new original by Terence Koh and all the beautifully worn antique furniture, each piece was more interesting than the next. As an artist Dr. Woo is single-handedly changing the culture of “the tattoo” as an art form. He has grown a multi-million following on social media and still most commonly recognized for his single needle tattoos. After just one personal visit I realized the multi-faceted artist Brian Woo has so much more to share that lives beyond the craft of a tattoo. Woo takes his work very seriously, his focus and precision is like none other, yet I personally look forward to the day where that precision is broken and there is a wild Brian Woo original hanging in some "high brow" museum. Soon enough. A young lady walks into the studio, she is Woo's 2 o'clock appointment, I pack up my things and leave as Dr. Woo and his client begin their next collaboration.
A story by Samuel Massey