Mark Mahoney started out tattooing Hell’s Angels bikers at a seedy motorcycle club in Massachusetts, before inking the skin of punks in New York’s underground music scene. In the four decades since, he has seen it transform for an artform for outlaws to something even the Prime Minister’s wife indulges in, no more highlighted by the fact that he’s about to start a residency at the swanky Mandrake hotel in London’s upmarket Fitzrovia.
Oh, and between becoming widely recognised as the “founding father" of blackwork single-needle tattooing and founding the mecca that is Shamrock Social Club in Los Angeles, he’s found time to fit in clients including David Beckham, Adele, Angelina Jolie, Rihanna, Jared Leto, and appear in two Lana Del Rey videos.
But in Mahoney’s chair - whether that’s in a dive bar on the East Coast or a luxury hotel - it doesn’t matter if you’re a blue collar worker or an A-list celebrity, that needle hitting the skin triggers the same processes in the body as it scrapes against the skin, vibrates the bones and sends your being into a state of shock. “I guess tattooing hurts everyone and pain is the great equaliser,” he tells The Independent.
Mahoney is unfazed by having Johnny Depp regard him as a brother, or tattooing Lady Gaga’s head in a suspended perfume bottle at New York Fashion Week 2012. His most cherished experiences in his lengthy career are his most unglamorous, and he doesn’t drop a single famous name.
Asked to recall the superlative moments in his career, he keeps to stories about his craft rather than any individuals. His most memorable moments, he replies, involve “riots, gunfights and making an old lady’s day by tattooing her eyebrows back on her.” The most unusual tattoo he has completed? "A guy had bite mark on his cheek and I put a kiss lip print in the middle." The worst thing about his job is not having enough hours in the day to tattoo all his clients. His waiting list is up to six-months long, sessions can costs thousands of dollars and so he's not one to take shortcuts. “There is a certain back piece I did that I put thousands of hours in on,” he recalls. (And if you do ever make it into his appointment book, avoid getting a tribal tattoo: which he regards as the worst trend ever, no fun for the artist and the hardest to cover up). The best thing about his job? That he gets to meet a “great variety of people.” Well, yeah, you could call it that.
But unlike the old woman whose eyebrows Mahoney fixed up (we assume), his most high profile clients are part of the reason why tattooing has become more mainstream, along with relaxing social attitudes. Once seen as a marker of criminals, an estimated one in five people in the UK has a tattoo, and one in three young adults. Does it bother him that tattooing might have lost its edge? “Yeah, I miss the days when it was more of a shadowing thing,” he laments. Social media has also transformed tattooing. In the past, tattoo artists were underground figures in parlours. Now, they can have followings that rival fitness bloggers, and once-intimate tattoos can be shared across the world in seconds and reputations built in months, not decades.
“I guess that [social media ruining tattooing] remains to be seen. It is sad that it does away with paying your dues concept. You can go to the head of the class. It doesn’t seem fair,” he adds.
Still, he's not bitter and knows that the best artists will always rise to the top, regardless of their Instagram following. “I feel like I am lucky I found tattooing," he says. "I don’t think it’s for everybody. There are sacrifices you have to make and the tattooer’s life in the long run is not an easy one."
After all that he has achieved, what does he want his legacy to be? “That I tried to do good tattoos and make people happy.”
Mark Mahoney will be the artists in residence at the Mandrake hotel from 5 - 16 October
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