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Welcome to Big Break, where some of the most influential figures in the beauty industry reflect on the beauty moments that made them — from the good to the bad, and everything in between. Here, tattoo artist Dr. Woo shares how he created a creative empire that nearly every A-list celebrity wants in on.
Brian "Dr. Woo" was 14 years old when he got his first formal tattoo — a dragon on his left ankle, if you omit the impromptu stick-and-poke smiley face him and his friends DIYed at age 11 — but it was a decade before he even considered going into that line of work. It wasn't for lack of interest, or even curiosity, as much as it was a preconceived notion of its plausibility.
"I was a tattoo collector from a very young age, but the deeper I got into that world, the further away being a tattoo artist seemed," he told POPSUGAR. "Being at the shop regularly, I got to see the pedigree some of these guys had reached. It's such a subversive culture, and I was intimidated. I was just some first-generation kid trying to find my own way."
Today, Dr. Woo is one of the most sought-after tattooists, with the biggest names in Hollywood (think: Hailey Bieber, Drake, and Kendall Jenner, to name a few) all clamoring for a coveted appointment. But earlier on, he was working as a buyer for a high-end fashion boutique. Then came his first big break: legendary tattooist Mark Mahoney, from which Dr. Woo had gotten many a tattoo, offered him a rare apprenticeship at his parlor — one of the most esteemed in LA at the time.
"I was put up against people telling me I wasn't going to make it, and everyone around me were the best in the business. It was good because it gave me something to look up to, but, at the same time, it was a harsh measuring system."
"It was three years of watching 10 tattooers at the top of their game, and it was great, but I was at the bottom of the totem pole. I did everything from sweeping to cleaning the toilets to ordering their food to bandaging their clients. Any problems that trickled down, I was at the bottom catching all of it."
That, he says, was the true test: "I was put up against so many people telling me I wasn't going to make it, and everyone around me were the best in the business. It was good because it gave me something to look up to, but, at the same time, it was a harsh measuring system. You rate yourself against these titans. I was insecure about my own abilities, and there wasn't a lot of encouragement. But then I figured, like everything else, I'm just going to do what I can to the best of my capabilities, and have faith that if I attack a job without slacking, it'll pay off for me."