Dr. Woo’s Tattoo Basics

Drake's Tattoo
Langley Fox
Erin Wasson Low Luv Campaign Spring 2012
Erin Wasson Low Luv Campaign Spring 2012
Emily Weiss

Right after a brief mention of Kat Von D, and before a discussion on the ethics of Mountain Dew's 2028 promotional campaign encouraging teens to ink QR codes on their foreheads, the tattoo textbooks of the future will devote an entire chapter to the fine-line fashion tats of right now. The delicate, precise black-and-grey designs, highly detailed on the level of a Langley Fox pencil drawing, represent a new wave of tattooing. One that's more widely accepted and palatable than, say, a grim reaper chest piece, or the words "You're next," scrawled below a dagger on some guy's neck. And they're refined and quite beautiful, a totally different feel from the cartoonish stuff of recent years (actual cartoon characters, if you're Marc Jacobs, and then just stylistically if you went through a slightly juvenile, hipster foodie phase—so. many. pizza. tats.). They're demure in their placement (think of Erin Wasson's tattoos, which aren't visible if she's facing you straight-on), and have an artistic, 'curated' feel.

And, as they say, all the cool kids are doing it. Langley, Erin, Emily, Nick, Drake, and Chiara Ferragni are all clients of Dr. Woo, the LA-based tattoo artist who's responsible for the popularity of the fine-line technique amongst said cool kids. With demand for his work escalating (when Nick saw him on February 1st, his next available appointment was "May 23rd at 5:30pm"), we solicited him for a run-down of tattooing today—what people are wanting, where they're wanting them, what body parts to avoid, how to keep tats looking good, what to know before letting some dude shove an inky needle into your skin, and how Instagram is changing the game.

That's correct, Instagram = major shift in millenniums-old art form: "Instagram really just changed it all. My mentor, Mark Mahoney, is known for his fine line, so I switched from using eight needles for a more traditional tattoo, and started learning single-needle tattooing. Then I started getting emails from people hitting me up for the fine-line stuff, and now I don’t think I've done a traditional tattoo in, like, six months. I remember when I first started my Instagram, I posted lots of images of tattoos on knuckles, and after that it was the only thing that people wanted. Then I did feathers and that’s all people wanted. Then I did small scripts and that’s all they wanted. It’s funny how it works that way."

Tattoos are like a sale on PS1 bags filled with nicotine: "They’re definitely addicting! There are people who get one that’s just for something special—and that could be it for them—but a lot of people say that, and then start finding empty spots on their skin and they decide they want more and more and more. Before, people were just getting sleeves and bigger tattoos that would cover their torso, but now people are just getting lots of small ones. They're like little accessories—they can complement your skin, and you can get them in all different places."

Where should I get a tattoo? My criteria is that I need to look like a badass but also hide them from my mom: "The inside of the arm is popular right now. I did a bunch of Erin Wasson’s tattoos, and just did one on her recently that’s only visible from the back, like the rest of them. It’s hard to see, you have to actually twist the arm and put it up to see it. Also for girls, along the neckline on the back is popular because you can’t see it when they put their hair down. The bikini area is obviously popular—that’s one that girls always get so they can hide it. Other than those, every other spot is going to be pretty visible. A lot of girls get tattoos on the side of their ribs."

Beware of the butt: "The ribs—that definitely hurts. The ribs, the fingers, and the butt really hurt. I thought the butt wouldn’t, but I've heard it’s pretty bad. Also behind the knee as well, I could imagine that would be pretty horrible."

Black and grey tattoos hurt less: "When you get a color tattoo, especially a bold, traditional color tattoo, the process is more traumatizing to your skin because the ink goes a little deeper. It breaks the skin more to let the color in, unlike the fine-line black and grey tattoos, which just kind of scratch the surface. If it’s solid lettering in black, it might scab a little, but generally the more delicate black tattoos should be a little easier on the skin than color."

Yelp your way to the tattoo parlor: "Word of mouth is important; get someone to refer you. Make sure that you see a broad spectrum of the artist’s work. These days, most artists have an Instagram, so you can get a good sense of their work beforehand. They may do an amazing portrait, but if you want, like, your grandma’s name, you have to make sure you see their technical side, too. Also, make sure that wherever you’re going is a reputable shop before getting anything done. You should look around and to see that it’s sterile and clean, and that they're using gloves and all that. All shops use new needles, so that should never be a problem."

Expect imperfection, and touch-ups: "People need to know that realistically, for a whole tattoo, there’s going to be some little thing that’s not perfect. When you break it down, it’s pretty rudimentary—you are just using a needle to push ink under the top layer of a person's skin. And I tell everyone getting knuckle tattoos, ‘You know, you have to be careful because there is no guarantee how the fingers heal.’ Although girls usually heal better than guys for some reason, but you can always get it touched up later. Sometimes it comes out perfectly, but that’s usually just a section—there is always going to be some kind of little inconsistency."

Support laser research: "I've had a lot of people come to me to cover a bad tattoo, but it’s kind of a weird tattoo-politics thing to not go over someone else’s work. I won't go over someone else’s tattoo if it’s a person I know and respect—or at least have heard of, but if it’s just some guy who learned how to do it in his garage, I don’t care about that. But in the well-established tattoo community, that's not OK."

Don't jinx your relationship, and also don't be a moron: "What I'm doing is more individual, specific to the client, rather than just choosing something from a tear sheet that someone might think looks cool but is actually offensive. Although now, too, some people will go straight to the knuckle for their first tattoo—I do it sometimes, but it’s really not something I like to do. Like, if a kid comes in and he doesn’t have anything on his arms or anywhere else, you’re not just going to tattoo his hands or his neck. But it’s not as taboo as it used to be. Though the ones I do on the fingers are so delicate that, even though technically it’s still the hand, it’s a different kind of thing than a traditional knuckle tattoo. And I will do a lover’s name, but I'll tell the person straight-up that it’s a curse. I’ve covered those a couple of times."

New tattoos are moody, scabby teenagers: "Right when you first get a tattoo, it will be red and a little puffy and the skin will be very raw and broken. Within the next couple of days, depending on the kind of tattoo you get, it should start to dry a little and get scabby or kind of flaky—that’s when you just use a little bit of unscented lotion. Then it heals, but it will still stay a little shiny because that’s new skin underneath—eventually that will even out. People tend to overthink the process of taking care of their new tattoo, and they actually end up getting it infected. When I started getting tattoos, five of them got infected, and I thought I was allergic to the ink. But it was actually too much lotion, too much anti-bacterial this, or anti-bacterial that, or keeping it covered or bandaged all the time—those things can be bad. Now I just use Cetaphil—fragrance-free—because my skin is very sensitive. A new tattoo's like having a teenager—you don’t want to mess with it too much or it will turn on you."

Photos 1-24 provided by Dr. Woo via his Instagram account: @dr_woo_ssc

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  • A. Nightmare

    Ain't nothing wrong with traditional tattoos, either. The best part about tattoos is how individualistic and subjective they are-- if you look good with a grim reaper chestpiece, I don't see the issue.

  • kt mo

    i love this post a lot, except for the idea that you should just accept your tattoo might not be perfect. That is super fishy. i have a lot of imperfect tattoos given to me by friends via the stick and poke method, or by my brother who is an artist that happens to own a tattoo gun. But the couple i've paid for had BETTER LOOK PERFECT. i mean whyyyyy...in what other industry do we allow the thing we're paying a professional loads of money to do NOT turn out perfect?? and the whole permanent body art thing is kind of important, so that just seems stupid and kind of like a cop out.

    these images are beautiful, even though i'm more into the classic style, tattoo-looking tattoos for myself.

    • http://intothegloss.com/ ITG Annie

      I disagree, I've seen lots of great tattoos that have faded over time or didn't heal correctly--and by no fault of the artist. You're working with a living, breathing canvas with the chance of inconsistencies in the skin, especially if there's a scar. I think that's what he was referring to, I don't think he was making excuses for sloppy work.

      • kt mo

        i agree with that^^^, but it was unclear. Healing improperly is almost always due to poor after care, which he mentions at the end. But when he says you should expect imperfections it sounds like he's referring to the initial work. Fading over time is also to be expected, but it didn't seem to me that's what he was referring to either. i don't know, i wasn't there, but it just read like "Disclaimer: Who Knows How My Work Is Going to Turn Out?"

        • ais

          just look at his work above, does it seem like he doesnt know what hes doing? and i agree with his statement, skin is constantly shifting, my friend was advised not to get a tattoo on a specific but common area, he still did and it turned out imperfect and the ink bled. no fault of the artist.

  • http://www.clevergirlreviews.com Clever Girl Reviews

    #2 is amazing, I'm totally in love with it!

  • Sarita

    I've been mulling over getting a tattoo for...pretty much over half my life (what can I say? I weigh my options to the point of inaction sometimes), but I've decided that 2014 is the year. So, this post is perfect! Thanks! I have a a new Instagram to follow in the process as well.

    • http://intothegloss.com/ ITG Annie

      Good luck! Glad we could help :)

  • Mari

    I'm not much of a tattoo lover, but these are... wow

  • Julia

    I think the #1 tattoo mistake most people make is designing their own tattoo. It's so much better to find someone whose portfolio really represents the subjects/aesthetic you like, give them an idea, and let them do their thing. If you've chosen a talented tattooer, they'll know what they're doing, and by giving them freedom to work and be creative, you'll get a better result.

  • http://www.winonainc.com/ Edwina@WINONA,INC.

    I really like the newer styles like #2. Fine lines, graphic shapes, not your grandfather's tats, that's for sure.

  • Bianca

    EMILY! Are you ever going to show us your "new" tattoo. And I say "new" because you did it months ago!

  • cat butt

    These are absolutely gorgeous.

  • Sabrina

    I COMPLETELY AGREE. His work is beautiful but I have never seen a tattoo with that much detail ( even some much larger pieces ) hold up to the test of time. Maybe if they are religious about sunscreen but even then some people's tattoos blur more than others. I have many myself an they have blurred a little over time. I would never get a tattoo with that much detail - that small! Bad idea.....

  • MlleMlle

    Beautiful but will age to a blurry blob....

  • Lou

    Loved this post, first of all! Second, does anyone here know a an amazing single needle tattoo artist over in Europe? Despite having mad google skills, and harrasing random people with great tattoos for references, I cannot seem to find anyone like Dr Woo in Europe. Am based in Holland but am willing to travel and just get a few at the same time. Thanks so much if anyone knows!

  • Carroll Kilty

    I'd love to know the same. Thanks!

  • Shmoolog

    I mean maybe it has some personal meaning to it. I wanted to get a margarita glass with a cookie on the rim. To anyone else it'd look pretty ridiculous but my aunt name was margarita and when she passed I got my dog cookie who also passed. Who knows.

  • Don Droga

    Hi - will this fine line style have lines that blur into one another and fade quite dramatically over time? Is the artist skilled in assuring longevity or is there no way of reducing blur and fading. I suppose spacing line work to allow for bleed or blur is one technique? I'm a newbie and curios. Thanks!