At 60 years of age Mark Mahoney is no closer to putting down the needle and thinks he will probably “fall over in the tattoo shop”, the Shamrock Social Club, a parlour as famous and immutable as the strip it sits on.
“Financially I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to do that (retire),” Mahoney told Parloir.
“I haven’t planned for it. CNN, whatever, was like asking me about the money and that… money for tattooers is pretty abstract, cause chances are whatever we make one day we’re going to spend the next. That’s been my experience. But I don’t think I’ll ever retire, I’ll probably fall over in the tattoo shop, I think.”
Mahoney continued: “I like to do stuff outside the shop (he fixes classic cars), but I wouldn’t like to be outside the shop too much. If I won the lottery I’d be back to work two-to-four days later, I’m sure. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Opened more than 15 years ago at 9025 Sunset Boulevard – nestled between The Viper Room – where River Phoenix OD’d on drugs on Halloween 1993, and Soho House – the Shamrock has become a Mecca for the trade for which Mahoney is a Godfather, in every sense.
Silver-haired and sangfroid; impeccably dressed in 70s New York mobster meets rockabilly-garb, Mahoney cuts a timeless figure so sharp he’s been described as a “living skeleton Elvis”.
Mahoney’s lived through it all and done so unchanged cultivating an authenticity so organic, rich, and graceful that Hollywood has cast him – Black Mass (2015), Unstoppable (2010) and Déjà Vu (2006) – and its stars and starlets look up to him for his star power, while not box-office-big, is un-manufacturable.
Russell Brand once said the pompadoured-prince is “so charming and enchanting I kept getting myself tattooed just so I could suss him out”.
Lana Del Ray considers Mahoney a muse. He played her baby-daddy in the music video for the aptly titled, ‘Shades of Cool’, and featured in another, ‘West Coast’.
“He’s one of my biggest personal inspirations. He’s easygoing and really cool,” Del Ray said of Mahoney in a Clash magazine interview.
It’s this celebrity connection that has kept Mahoney in the media of late, with the raconteur being hit with endless Hollywood-related questions about his clientele while being the first artist in residence at new London boutique hotel, The Mandrake, where he worked from October 3-16 for a starting price of £2,000 a tattoo.
The hotel, which has art “at its very heart” says of inviting Mahoney to work: “Ask anyone with any interest in the medium and they will tell you, Mark is an uncontested heavy weight legend of the art form. It is not just that he is ‘Don’ of black and grey, or that his client list would make the head of the greatest talent agent on earth weep with envy, Mark Mahoney is a great artist and a man of depth and enormous soul. For us at the Mandrake, art is about the reality of creativity, soul and culture and Mark for us is exactly what we value.”
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Mahoney spoke of David Beckham to the media telling one broadsheet how the former footballer “didn’t pee for about seven hours” and seemed impervious to pain. Adele was “badass”. A tattoo on Lady Gaga was the most challenging. In 2012, while entombed in a levitating perfume bottle, he etched a cherub into the back of her head at New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum to celebrate her Fame fragrance launch.
He inked both Tupac Shakur and Biggie – (The Notorious B.I.G sought out Mahoney for his first and last tattoo, a bible scene on his back, just days before he was shot dead in March 1997) and Mickey Rourke many times, before he famously soured when Mahoney couldn’t squeeze him in before the actor-turned-pugilist had a boxing match in Russia. Brad Pitt, Daniel Day Lewis, Jared Leto, Rihanna and Johnny Depp make up an endless list of admirers.
The latter refers to him as his “brother”.
Depp is one of Mahoney’s oldest clients with the black and grey master first inking him underage, when the now A-lister was a broke kid trying to get his band signed, aged 17.
While Mahoney’s celebrity encounters are perfect front-page fodder they’re frivolous when weighed against his back-story, a full-throttle ride through the underworld all the way to the red carpet.
SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
The Irish-Catholic Bostonian broke the law to break-in to the trade in 1977, having earlier developed a lifelong crush during his first visit to Buddy Mott’s Tattoo Spot in Newport, Rhode Island, aged 14.
“I was like, ‘fuck that’s it,” Mahoney recalled of visiting Mott’s parlour. “I just wanted to tattoo as quickly as I could. That’s what I needed to be doing.”
In a film by Ivan Olita, Mahoney recalls telling his parents of his ink ambitions. They were “less than amused”.
“And maybe I thought I had to try extra hard. If I’m going to be one of these filthy, dirty tattooers, I’m going to be a good filthy, dirty tattooer,” he told Olita, before going on to speak about his “Catholic guilt” and his desire to seek “absolution” by guiding his customers through the crossroads of their lives, which often inspire their designs.
At first, Mahoney, a Museum of Fine Arts in Boston dropout, learned tattooing from his friend, Mark Herlihy. The pair had been trying to buy equipment from Rhode Island, but in the wild-west days of tattooing, no one helped anyone. Herlily solved that by joining the navy. He then bought a case of Budweiser over to Mahoney’s and a set of crude tools and Mahoney figured it out in real-time on the flesh, at a time when tattooing was illegal in Massachusetts.
Work was plentiful in the clubhouses of biker gangs across New England where a young Mahoney branded drunk-Hell’s Angels with racist symbols, while working in rooms draped with swastika flags, before following the best work to its source – New York – where his sister was kicking-about with Andy Warhol.
In Manhattan, Mahoney fell in with the punks inhabiting the Chelsea Hotel, where he tattooed Johnny Thunder and attempted on several occasions to ink Sid Vicious, whose girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death at the Bohemian landmark in October 1978: “He (Sid) could never decide, or he’d get in a fight with his old lady… I’m not sure if I ever actually tattooed him or not.”
It was there Mahoney fell in love with heroin, a habit that cost him his first tattoo parlour, opened in 1985 and closed four years later. He unburdened himself of the habit 25 years ago after a stint in rehab and meeting his now wife Nicole, who manages Shamrock and a vintage store they also own.
“Absolutely, (I would do tattooing again). I wouldn’t change a thing. I guess I wouldn’t change a thing, except I wouldn’t have done so many drugs. I probably could have retired on the money I spent on drugs,” Mahoney says of his journey.
Of learning tattooing, Mahoney told Olita:
“You almost have to fall in love with tattooing itself, the art of it, at first, to really learn it. It’s kind of all encompassing, you know, you have to throw yourself into it, it doesn’t leave much room for love. By the time I was a good tattooer I was so entrenched in the drug world and everything like that. I never even thought about quitting dope until I met my wife.”
Heading west Mahoney settled in Long Beach on the Pike, the famed amusement park that was dotted with tattoo parlours, where scores were settled with firebombs and bullets.
It was here Mahoney began the prison gang-style black and grey work that he’d become synonymous with which customers now wait upwards of six-months to get at Shamrock which he opened in 2002.
The shops motto, “Where the Elite and Underworld Meet”, speaks to Mahoney’s journey and his desire to open a shop where everyone is welcome, a far cry from the “gruff one-word answer” parlours of his youth.
In a documentary on Mahoney, Indelible Ink, one client says of the father of fine-line tattooing: “It took me a while to understand. All I knew is that walking into the Shamrock was healing. Mark Mahoney seemed more like a priest than a tattoo artist.
“It’s not so much what he says, although when he does speak you listen. Maybe it’s because he knows. Yeah, Mark Mahoney is a shaman and the Shamrock is his church. The moment you enter the Shamrock Social Club you feel it’s hallowed ground. If you ask him about it, he’ll change the subject, but he knows.”
While gentrification continues to eat away at the Sunset Strip, Mahoney remains unchanged and the Shamrock, as the Hollywood Reporter recently noted (in an article headlined ‘The High Priest Of Hollywood Tattoo Artists’), remains a ‘weigh station for the West Coast aesthetic, a home for legends of the trade such as Freddy Negrete and Rick Walters as well as a launching pad for protégés such as Dr. Woo (Mahoney took him on aged 13).
Mahoney’s tailored-suits and sharp-tipped shoes have perhaps made him Teflon to time. But he’s also remained authentic because he’s never sold out in a trade as supercharged and instagrammed as the fitness industry.
Fellow pioneer Ed Hardy had his legacy all but erased by licensing his name to a range of garish garments.
“I never ever consciously decided that (not to become a brand). I don’t make any grand decisions about this is right and this is wrong, I just take them as they come,” Mahoney opined.
“I look forward to selling out though. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to come along… No, I’m kidding.”
Shit tattoos are also still a must for the mix: “You’ve got to (have them) man. I think you’re a square if you don’t have them, fuck having all perfect tattoos,” he says, having earlier recalled how his daughter Amalia tattooed a Betty Boop on his leg as she learned the craft.
Green-juice toting mums and daughters from Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills now frequent the Shamrock, where Amalia (@loki_mahoney) – “such a talented kid and an amazing artist” now also works, Mahoney says he doesn’t mind.
The Shamrock is a social club after all.
“The real people will always want to get tattoos. I’ve done my share of hoodlums and I expect I always will, it is you know, nice that other people, squares, can enjoy the thrills of being tattooed too.”
(Main imagine by Shane Russeck @shanerusseckphotography)