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Dr. Woo, art in the skin

November 15 2017

[Click on the image to see the gallery]

Dr. Woo has become one of the most famous tatoo artist and a star of social networks. His geometric patterns, his fine line drawings in black and gray that evoke Dürer's engravings, have become objects of desire. Six months waiting to have the privilege to wear one of his signature tattoos. Drake and Cara Delevingne entrusted him with their skin. Meeting in Los Angeles, in the salons of Château Marmont. - Isabelle Cerboneschi


When I ask him to appoint me a quiet table where I could interview Brian Woo, aka Dr Woo, the manager of the restaurant of Chateau Marmont changes face, smiles and even before making a sound, shows me his forearm. A kind of passport. I discover a sublime geometric tattoo designed by one of the most talented tatoo artist in our time. Dr. Woo? He's the one who drew all my tattoos! she said finally. Then she talks to a woman in her sixties sitting in an armchair next to her. Dr. Woo will arrive! He has an appointment for an interview. Another Dr. Woo client. A fan too. I feel like everyone has been tattooed by him. Except me.

Dr. Woo (35 years old) grew up in Los Angeles. Fan of violin and skateboard. And tattoos. When he reaches the legal age to get his skin tinted, he turns to one of the living tattoo legends: Mark Mahoney at the Shamrock Social Club. In 2007, Dr. Woo goes to the other side of the mirror and client becomes an apprentice. He learns the hard way, cleaning the floor included. And that for three years.

He develops his own style, the tattoo with a single needle, which gives contours of extraordinary finesse. The customers love it.

In 2011 Dr. Woo becomes dad and his family is now his priority. To make an appointment with him, one must be patient, very patient: 6 months of waiting.

Drake and Cara Delevingne entrusted him with their skin. Among others. If one observes his account Instagram, followed by 1,2 million followers, one discovers there the skeleton of snake which winds on the left hand of Cara Delevingne. We see mostly lion's heads that seem to want to emerge from the skin, butterflies or dragonflies caught in flight, architectural utopias, more traditional motifs in the American style, or esoteric limited geometric drawings. It's as beautiful as a painting, or as a talisman, that one would want to have on oneself, always.

IC: I do not have tattoos, but when I saw yours, I wanted to get tattooed. It's like having a piece of art on your skin.
Dr. Woo: Actually, the tattoos were pretty rudimentary. Over time, people have evolved the art of these little ink marks made in the skin. What happens between the desire to be tattooed, the idea of ​​wearing a tattoo on yourself forever, and the passage to the act is very interesting.

You are considered one of the best, if not the best tattoo artist in the world. Your drawings are recognizable, with your geometric patterns, and these very fine lines that evoke engravings by Albrecht Dürer. How did you build your style?
It was not a conscious construction: I just wanted to make very good tattoos. Mark Mahoney, my mentor and master, one of the living legends of tattooing, taught me everything: it's a very competitive world and I wanted to be as good as the big guys. At the beginning you begin to gather elements of style, until the day when, when everything put together, as in life, it gives an identifiable result, in the same way that one recognizes your voice, or the way of walking . At first, I was not in the construction of a style but rather in the repetition. Then, I consciously added to my way of working some recognizable effects that I amplified.

Have you studied at an art school?
I took some classes at university before giving up, so I do not have a classical training.

Your tattoos seem to be inspired by Albrecht Dürer's engravings or geometric shapes by Vassily Kandinsky. Are the tatoo artists, like all other artists, practice copying classical works of art when they start their careers?
When I started, I did not really know about Kandinsky's work. But when I started doing tattoos, people told me that my work reminded them of his style, less spontaneous. Dürer's work, on the other hand, is a reference in the world of tattooing: its engraving, its fine lines, its very expressive drawings and its spectacular way of rendering shadows.

I did not know that Dürer could have influenced the tattoo world!
The tattoo is very often inspired by the art that surrounds us. Currently you will see many tattoos inspired by Bernini's sculptures, for example. Many people are tattooed with large statues on the body.

Have you seen the exhibition of Picasso and Rivera at Lacma?
No, not yet, but I really want to go there.

The first room shows sketches of the Venus de Milo that Picasso and Rivera drew in their own way. The process seems to be quite comparable in the world of tattooing.
The things we see inspire us. They sow within us seeds that we forget, that grow and grow in an unexpected and unconscious way. When you look at your work five or ten years later, you become aware of it and you think that this drawing was inspired by this, or by that. It may be that my work is very similar to that of other artists, even though I have never seen their works. I think that in the end, ideas are recycled and passed on from artist to artist, each reinterpreting and creating something new from an influence. The result seems familiar, and so it attracts you. I find that very cool. I'm not talking about the flagrant copy, which also exists in the world of tattooing.

When you draw on paper, you use a two-dimensional support, which does not move, but when you draw on the skin, which is a three-dimensional and mobile medium, it causes other constraints. How do you handle this extra difficulty?
It's great that you noticed this because nobody cares. I always tell people when they come to get tattooed that it is very difficult to get some effect on the skin, such as drawing circles or straight lines on a curved surface that moves and turns. You have to live with the idea that tattoos breathe. They can not be symmetrically perfect. Once the designs are on the skin, they are mobile and three-dimensional. It is difficult to make people understand that they want a circle on a part of the body too curved: the circle may take an oval shape. Most of the time, I make small tattoos, because the smaller they are, the more they will be well proportioned. Once you start to increase the size, the tattoo absorbs the skin all around, the shapes change and deform with time.

How do you deal with this distortion effect?
You live with! As I said at the beginning of our conversation, this art of injecting ink into a skin with a needle is ultimately rather rudimentary: there is no perfection possible. A tattoo is ink and as you get older, your skin will stretch and your design too. It's something you're going to live with. You can not expect it to be a perfect image, like the one that could come out of a computer. Once it has touched your skin, it will become something quite different.

I saw a sublime lion on your Instagram account. How do you make it look like he's alive?
Thank you ! Sometimes this type of tattoo works better on the skin than on paper because precisely, as it is flexible, the tattoo moves and gives the illusion of being alive.

Why did you choose to tattoo in black and gray?
It's my personal style, I'm very monochromatic. I think it's timeless. The colors are very emotional, but emotions, they go and they come. Orange for example can be a great color, but you may not want to have orange on you forever.

How do you create drawings for people like me, who do not have a tattoo?
It's not for me but for you to think about the tattoo you want. When you're ready, then we can start talking about it. Sometimes people come to see me without any idea; I tell them to come back when they know what they want. Today, you are the only person in this room who is not tattooed! I find it pretty cool. When I made my first tattoos, it was the opposite: I was the only one in the room to be tattooed. Maybe this is not the time for you to get tattooed ... Keep your exclusivity.

When I see your tattoos, it seems to me that they are the only ones that are timeless and that it is impossible to regret them.
That's why I like black and gray: they will be cool in 20 or 30 years and they probably were 20 years ago. The geometric designs are very specific, very precise, they come from a personal choice and I do not think they are intended for everyone, but I would be interested to see how people will interpret these models in 20 years. When will they watch, will they say to themselves: Oh, it was super trendy in 2010! or will they think they are timeless. I think that symbols transcend time and that they can always be read differently, whatever the meaning is. I hope my tattoos will be perceived as well.

The tattoo has long had a bad reputation: you could put a social tag on tattooed people. Today, this is no longer the case, on the contrary. Is it a way to wear some kind of virtual protection on your skin?
Yes, people are now interested in different belief systems and this is also expressed in the tattoos that I am asked, such as the drawings of the Celtic runes, the protective eye or the Hamsa, the hand of Fatima. Many people are tattooed with these symbols: they want to have them permanently on them. Mine is not related to a religion and therefore they do not really symbolize protection, but I suppose that if a drawing means something really important to a person, and we create it together, it carries a certain energy.

Tattooing and prostitution are the oldest professions in the world. Who are the tattoo artists of the past that you admire?
Sailor Jerry is probably one of the most modern and contemporary tattooists ever. You probably know his drawings old school: sailors, birds, sirens. Matt Hardy, Freddy Negrete and Mark Mahoney have allowed them to rediscover tattoos fine lines black & gray (the fine line in black and gray), which are at the base of what I do. I also like the traditional Japanese style that dates back to samurai times.

What techniques do you use to recreate such fine delicate lines?
The technique is simply called single needle thin lines (fine lines with a single needle).

When you work abroad, can you feel as comfortable as in your studio?
I think when you travel, it's hard to be comfortable. The lighting is different, the power supply driver and the energy are different. I like being in my studio where everything is at hand, but I can not take all my stuff on a trip. I think it's like a chef: you always feel more comfortable in your own kitchen.

What is the style of the tattoos that are on your hands?
It is very "traditional American style". I started there.

And when you create, what inspires you?
All the shapes, all the patterns I draw are inspired by different forms of art: music, painting, they all have an ingredient that captivates me. It's like a tank: I put different ingredients in it to create fuel. My art is fuel: I mix all my ideas, I do not compartmentalize them.

What you do is intuition then?
Yes. If I see an architectural element that I like, it could be partially in a drawing, but in an unconscious way.

Do you self-tattoo?
Not seriously, no, just to have fun.

QWhat tattoo was the most difficult to achieve?
I made a big train on the back of one of my friends. I loved doing it. This is a question that is often asked to me and I never know how to answer it.

The strangest, then?
It's also difficult to answer that. One of the things I learned from tattooing is that there is nothing normal or weird, because everyone likes different things. I tattoo so many people that what may seem strange one day is not the next day.

Have you ever said no to a customer?
Yes of course! You must educate people. For example, you told me that you did not know much about tattoos, so you do not know which part of your body is the best support. People sometimes want tattoos on places that do not age well. But they want me to tattoo something that lasts. My job is also to explain that we wear our skin a bit like a leather jacket: it ages and changes with time. It's not the tattoo that changes, but the skin.

Are there specific reasons you refused to tattoo?
Yes, I do not do anything negative: I do not want to draw anything that can negatively affect the life and the gaze that people have on the tattooed person, a motive that would encourage hatred for example. It has nothing to do with my personal beliefs or philosophy of life, but if someone makes a decision that seems to me to be irresponsible, it is my responsibility to help them move toward a better decision. Especially young people: I will not tattoo their faces, their hands, their necks.

Neither the whites of their eyes ...
That's a new thing. I do not even consider it a tattoo because it's not a tattoo. It's just a weird injection and I do not like it.

You tattoo celebrities like Drake and Cara Delevigne, is it indiscreet to ask you what you design for them?
Yes, because I do not talk about my famous customers. I can only say that I did very different things for each one of them.

You mentioned skin like a kind of leather jacket: have you ever tattooed leather?
I have tried various art and fashion projects, but I like to separate these experiences from the tattoo world. Tattoo leather bags, there is nothing new in there. I already did it and I probably would, but it's not something I'm passionate about.

You have tattoos all over your body. Can we read a kind of magical meaning, as if you were wearing your entire biography on your skin? Do you feel protected by your tattoos?
When I was younger, strangely, my tattoos were my armor, as if there was a wall around me, but as I get older, and I tattoo so many people, I start looking at myself differently . It is no longer a protection, they have become my skin, I do not even notice them. They are right there. If you take one away from me, I might not even realize he's gone. Even my children do not pay attention: their eyes go over. They are used to it being part of me.

Is it a way for people to perfect their beauty?
Of course! If tattoos made with taste and the rules of art help you feel better, more beautiful, protected, then, it's fabulous! But there are extremes in everything. Tattooing is a bit like cosmetic surgery: you have to know how to say "stop" at a given moment and be able to control the situation. You sometimes meet young people who have had a tattoo, and when you re-cross them, they are completely covered. They will no longer have the opportunity to evolve their collection of drawings because they have been too impulsive. Moderation is important. Tattooing is a very old tradition, which was based on the beliefs of some people, on their faith. I think this spiritual connection still exists.

Translation: Cléo Bennoun`

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