When it comes to black and gray tattoos there are thousands of practitioners but only a handful who could ever be considered teachers–let alone masters of the art. In the same breath, the hype of television has given a false sense of award to those who might be great at their craft, but nothing comes close to the pioneers who helped construct the industry that has given them their fame. While the aforementioned statement doesn’t take away or discredit those who have cashed in on the fame, the bottom line is that behind any industry, great powerhouse, or large corporation, is the minence grise who has put forth the money, the dedication, and the sweat to help create a brand or industry that is now bejeweled in the eyes of mainstream America.
When it comes to black and gray tattoos using a single needle, many consider prison its origin, but in terms of business practitioners on the street, no names garnish the respect and admiration like that of Jack Rudy, Good Time Charlie Cartwright, Freddy Negrete, and our featured artist Mark Mahoney. Mark is considered one of the founding fathers of the art. He’s not only mentored some of today’s newest artists but he’s also played a vital role in the growth and popularity of tattoos. His name is one that’s respected both on the streets and in the industry, and he was one of the first tattoo artists to gain fame and notoriety for inking Hollywood’s finest. From Mickey Rourke to Brad and Angelina, Johnny Depp, and the late Notorious B.I.G., Mark has been inking his way to stardom far before many could even draw a straight line.
Ask the slick-dressing man who’s inked everyone from A-list celebs to local block stars and he’ll be the first to let you know that he treats them no differently. Every tattoo to Mark is an opportunity to become a permanent part of someone’s life, and he respects the craft just as much for the art as he does for the physical ritual. For Mark, a tattoo is a partnership between a client and himself, and while other tattoo artists take all the credit for their work, Mark will be the first to say that it has to be shared with the customer because without their idea and donation of skin there would be no canvas for any work to be done.
With raw beginnings from the Pike in Long Beach, California, he’s now made Hollywood his new home. Unlike other tattoo establishments that are cold and uninviting, Mark Mahoney’s Shamrock Social Club is far different. Cold treatment and hard looks are exchanged for an inviting encounter, and from young to old, gangster to professional, anyone who steps foot into this ink and artistic utopia are in for the experience of a lifetime. Inside, newcomers will find an eclectic mix of individuals from varying ethnicities and social backgrounds, but the one thing they all have in common is a genuine love and respect for tattoos.
While we could go on for days, no words could ever describe what is best experienced by paying him a visit. We sit down with a man who is considered a living legend and pick his brain for advice while also discussing the evolution of an art that was once considered taboo.
Give us a brief history of Mark Mahoney.I grew up in Boston where tattooing was illegal. I would hang around with this little greaser gang, and I remember going to a tattoo shop for the first time. It was Buddy Mott’s Tattoo Spot in Newport, Rhode Island. As soon as I stepped foot in the shop I knew what I wanted to do. I was only 14 years old.
What is it about tattooing that has kept you in it?What has kept me in this game is that tattooing to me is an art for the people, regular people like you and me. It isn’t this far away gallery or some mystifying thing that nobody can relate to. I was always looking for a way to make a living with my art. Ever since I could remember I could draw. I also remember thinking that the guys in my neighborhood with the motorcycles and tattoos were cool. It was inescapable; I knew I was born to tattoo.
Who or what were some of your early inspirations?Some of my early inspirations must have been neighborhood things like cars, choppers, and religious artifacts from church. Some of my favorites things back then were the Ed Roth era cars and artwork, along with paintings from David Mann. I remember I would go to church every Sunday morning and look at the dramatic Virgin Marys and the stages of Jesus carrying the cross. I look back now and realize how all of that was an inspiration to me.
What work are you best known for?I have a reputation for fine-line black and gray tattoos, but most know me for my portrayal of religious icons. Then there is also that ghetto/gangster street stuff, the ones with the old-school collages with bombs, gangsters, girls, streetlights, and handguns.
When did you officially start this facility?In 2001. I was going to sign the lease on 9/11, but we all know what happened that day, so I ended up getting this place the following day and have been right here ever since.
Coming from the East Coast, give us a brief breakdown of where you’ve tattooed.I’ve been in Long Beach, San Pedro, San Gabriel Valley at Fat George’s, which was a little shop on Valley Boulevard, then I was blessed to work at Tattooland in East L.A. on Whittier Boulevard, and then they moved to Anaheim, and after that I made my way up to Hollywood.
In terms of the future, what is the plan for Shamrock Social Club?My main concern is to keep it real. I want Shamrock Social Club to be a place where kids, families, and homies can come and be comfortable. I want this to become their second home regardless of whether they’re famous or not.
For anyone who knows their history, you’ve become well known for tattooing celebrities as well as being one of the forefathers of black andgray. How did that come about and how does it feel?Some of the first celebs I did were Mickey Rourke and Cher, but I would have to say that I owe a lot to Mickey because he was one of the first celebrities I tattooed and developed a good friendship with.
How influential was Mickey Rourke?Mickey showed all of Hollywood that you could still be in the public eye and have a few tattoos. He was real symbolic of the tattoo lifestyle and made a difference way back before tattoos were considered “cool.”
What changes have you seen in the tattoo lifestyle other than it being more socially acceptable nowadays?There are two things that blow my mind: the fact that you can now remove them or that people can use cream to make the tattoo process painless. I remember how it used to be a scary thing to get a tattoo and how it hurt and that it couldn’t be removed, but now you can avoid all that and some of that punch is watered down a bit since you have a way out. In a way that makes me sad, however I do realize that it’s good for the business in the long run. I guess I just kind of miss the old days when you had to be an outlaw, or you had to be a real brave soul to get a tattoo.
As far as your shop is concerned, who are your key artists?I don’t have one key person but a few of them. For starters I have Freddy Negrete or “Coyote” as he is known. I consider him to be the godfather of the single needle black and gray style, and he pretty much invented the fine-line black and gray tats back on Whittier Boulevard. I’m also proud to say that I have his son working here as well. I also have Andrew Farnsley who I consider the “Great White Hope.” He is one of the cleanest, best, and most artistic tattooers I have ever known, and he blows my mind every day. I’ve got so many artists to list, an amazing crew that includes Doug Stewart and OG Danny Romo, and it’s safe to say that I have the cream of the crop here–the top of the heap.
Many tattoo shops have a very cliquish and standoffish approach, but Shamrock Social Club is a fitting name because everyone here is very inviting and welcoming. So my question is, when you started Shamrock Social Club was that part of the plan or did that just happen with the people you hired?We’re not here to engrandize ourselves. We’re here to make people feel good about themselves and about their tattoos. Besides, I think you should be nice to the people who are trying to give you money. It’s just good sense. The big difference between me and a lot of other tattooists is the simple fact that I like people. Other tattoo artists look at their pieces as their own creation but I tend to look at each piece as a joint effort between me and the client. You see it’s whatever you want that is paramount to me. You know I’m here to make you happy, so I try to have that attitude instilled with all the guys. Besides, that is just a part of my philosophy because I can remember when I was just a “green kid” who was hungry for knowledge and I’ll never forget going into shops to ask questions and getting the door slammed in my face.
As far as other tattoo artists out there, who do you respect?I would have to say that Jack Rudy and Sapo are on top of my list. Sapo to me is one of the unsung guys in the game. He’s actually OG Chuco’s (RIP) half-brother and he is one of the first guys who gave me some game on single needle tattoos. He also showed me how to draw women’s hair.
How do you feel about the art of black and gray tattoo?It’s a beautiful thing and this is a real movement. I would like to think of black and gray tattoos and their artists as going down in history, maybe as an impressionist era or something equally significant in its own right.
Are there any tattoos that you won’t do?I guess the only one I really won’t do is the 666. I try to do sh*t to improve peoples’ lives and I don’t see how that tattoo in particular will help anyone. But that’s just my take on it.
Do you remember what it was like the first time you stuck a needle into someone’s flesh knowing that you were going to give them something permanent?I remember my first time vividly, and to be honest I never thought about it as permanent nor was I afraid or nervous. I was just so sure that tattooing was what I was supposed to be doing and I was excited to have the opportunity to do it.
What advice would you give anyone who feels compelled to be a tattoo artist and wants to pursue it as a career?Don’t go into this business thinking that you’re going to be rich and famous. If it happens that’s great, but you should be doing it because you have a passion for it. I’ll tell you what, I have a teenage daughter who’s interested in doing it and it’s a really tough way to make a living. Here I am world-famous, and 35 years later it’s not that much more profitable per night than when I was working in the motorcycle shop clubhouse in 1977. I would also have to say that you have to learn from others. Find a shop you feel comfortable with and go in there–spend money, get tattooed, hang out, and make a nuisance of yourself and then see what you can do.
A few celebs Mr. Mahoney has inked:
Brad and Angelina
Freddy Negrete is nothing short of a pioneer in the world of the fine line black and gray tattoo art. Interview after interview of every famous tattoo artist today will mention Freddy’s name as a major influence in their work. Frddie poplarized the single needle black and gray style that dominates the tattoo industry today. He first began working as a tattoo artist under Ed Hardy at good Time Charlie’s. Freddie was part of a revolutionary group of tattoo artists with diverse styles including Mark Mahoney, Bob Roberts and Leo Zuleta. Fredie was named artist of the year in 1980 but quit tattooing at the height of his carrer. He later took up tattooing again in 1990, this time bringing his underground art to popular culture by creating temporary tattoos for countless movies including Blood In Blood Out, Blade, Batman 2 just to name a few. Freddie’s unique style, vision and artistry are the true hallmark of the Fine Line Black and Grey tattoo style. To check out more of Freddy Negretes work visit www.myspace.com/freddy_negrete and to purchase some of his T-shirt designs visit www.myspace.com/valhallabrand.