Brian Woo, a.k.a. Dr. Woo, a.k.a. “Woo” to those in the know, is sitting among a dizzying array of art and ephemera in his studio at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel: A multimedia sculpture from his friend Nick van Woert is perched next to Sesame Street dolls designed by the artist KAWS and opposite a fiberglass chair Woo made with Los Angeles furniture company Modernica. “I always had a creative scope where nothing really landed in just one medium,” Woo explains, tugging at a Goro’s necklace—“a good, under-the-cut hit,” he says of the cultish piece of jewelry he scored at the late Goro Takahashi’s Harajuku store.
The medium for which he is best known, of course, is skin, and his work appears on some of the world’s most famous: Cara Delevingne’s rib, Miley Cyrus’s bicep, Bella Hadid’s shoulder, Justin Bieber’s neck. Woo’s tattoos are elegant and hyperrealistic. Striking in depth and detail, they frequently merge the graphic and the organic. “Anything that has a contrasted visual duality is cool to me,” he says, “like how Mexico City is this beautiful city engulfed in a jungle.” His slim-needle artistry was cultivated over 12 years at Shamrock Social Club, Sunset Boulevard’s storied tattoo parlor, and it has arguably changed tattoos from emblems of punk insubordination to ubiquitous accessories that are often accumulated like dainty pieces of permanent fine art. “There is no one like him in the world,” stylist Karla Welch explains of Woo, whom she met through Bieber and who etched a safety pin on the inside of her wrist, a symbol of where her life has taken her. Bieber’s wife, Hailey, is also a fan. “As I’ve figured out over the years what I like, I’ve gotten much more specific when I get a new tattoo and I just trust that Dr. Woo is gonna nail it every time,” Bieber says.
“He’s also an honest person and genuinely nice,” adds Sacai creative director Chitose Abe, who commissioned Woo to refresh Jean Paul Gaultier’s ’90s-era tattoo shirts when she was tapped by the French house to helm its fall 2021 couture collection earlier this year. Woo’s chains, eyes, orbs, angels, and swooping birds were printed onto jersey-base layers, which allowed spiderwebs and angel wings to peek out from underneath Abe’s blazers and dresses. “I knew he would reimagine Gaultier’s designs in a modern and elegant way,” Abe says of Woo, whose personal style mixes ready-to-wear heavyweights, limited-run streetwear, discerning Japanese labels, and vintage accessories.
“How do I take something so simple and make it different?” Woo regularly asks himself. It’s a question that is the crux of Projectwoo, a development studio that he recently debuted alongside a less-is-more skin-care line. The collection includes a gentle, three-ingredient soap, a green tea–infused daily moisturizer, a lip balm, and a tattoo aftercare treatment that “is good for anyone, whether you have tattoos or not,” notes Woo, who once struggled with sensitive skin and allergies, conditions that made it difficult to care for his own tattoos when he started collecting them as a teenager. Next year, Projectwoo will release a fragrance-free sunscreen that doesn’t leave behind a white cast. It follows a body wash, lightly scented with eucalyptus and citrus, that the brand just dropped in collaboration with Japanese shower-towel brand Goshi, “not so much for the tattoos that you just got, but for the ones you’ve had for years, to help exfoliate in the shower and make them pop,” he says.
Woo remains hyper-selective about his collaborations having learned to be wary of oversaturation at Shamrock Social Club. “In that shop, I saw celebrities fizzle real quick, because everything was about chasing that one excess moment. I don’t want to burn out,” he says of seeking new and interesting ways to leverage his artistry. This spring, after a decade of building an impressive Hollywood client roster, the 40-year-old father of two will get his own taste of the industry when he voices a character based on his younger self in HBO Max’s Chinos, a new animated series about two Chinese American kids that Woo developed with comedian Eddie Huang. “ ‘Dr. Woo: Celebrity Tattoo Artist’ has been the tagline for 10 years now,” he says. “I’m just looking for a newer way to tell the story.”