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Photo: Brad Torchia

People

Ink outside the box

Mark Mahoney, tattoo artist to the stars and best friends with Johnny Depp, is an ink legend. But the 60-year-old Irish Catholic ­Bostonian likes to tattoo everyone from the elite to the underground in his tattoo shop Shamrock Social Club in Hollywood.

Shamrock Social Club used to be a record store. Mark Mahoney points this out as he explains that he is playing some old Jamaican ska by Desmond Dekker partly because he has a thing for nostalgia for the good old days, partly because it is just cool music.

The same goes for the building we’re in. Mahoney, who signed the lease the day after 11 September 2001, had always thought the old, white, colonial-modern building had the prettiest storefront on Sunset Strip. It used to say “Crosby Building” out front, in honor of the singer and actor Bing Crosby who built it for himself and used it as a recording studio and for jam sessions in the 1930s. Thus, it was the perfect spot for Mahoney’s new tattoo shop – an old building with intimate rooms that had stories to tell. It was part of old Hollywood history with the likes of Crosby and Louis Armstrong apparently having partied and smoked pot here with a bunch of musicians.

It was also a perfect place for people to hang out, which was of the utmost importance – tattooing is a social art form for Mahoney. Back in the days when he started out in the business on the East Coast, tattoo shops used to be intimidating and scary places to walk into. He wanted his shop to be inviting and comfortable – a place where people would feel a sense of community. 

“I like people dropping in and telling me what’s going on with them,” Mahoney says, while drawing two cupids on a piece of paper a young Canadian wants on his shoulders. “That’s the Shamrock model – it’s a social club. And I like it best when there’s a good mix of people coming in. I like it when the elite and the underworld meet. It gives it life and excitement.”

Mahoney is working on the cupid drawings in the back room of the Shamrock Social Club. The walls are covered in paintings, pictures, images of three-leaf clovers and Catholic imagery and there are books in large piles and lots of ink in little plastic bottles on the many tables and shelves. There’s stuff everywhere. John F. Kennedy is among the many pictures on the wall and his face is also tattooed on Mahoney’s left arm, alongside his wife, Jackie. JFK has a special place in his club and on his body “because he’s a Boston guy,” Mahoney explains, and “a nice Irish Catholic boy.” He smiles and his intense blue eyes sparkle as he recalls the day of Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, lying on the floor in front of the TV back home in Boston while his dad was teaching him how to draw biplanes.

Mahoney knew he was going to make a living out of drawing and soon afterwards he knew he wanted to be a tattoo artist. But back in 1977 when he started tattooing in motorcycle clubhouses, it was still illegal in Boston. So he first moved to New York to explore the business there, and when he discovered that all the greatest tattoos he would come across were inked in a shop in Long Beach, California, he decided to move there. He was soon hired to work in the shop, The Pike, but all the while he kept dreaming of having a place of his own one day.
“I’ve had years of thinking about how I wanted a tattoo shop to be and how I wanted people to feel when they came here,” he says as he offers newly arrived customers a beer.
“I think it got pretty good and the way I pictured it in my mind. It’s a work in progress, but I just want people to feel at home. People will stop in just to say hello and it’s like a social club. I used to get yelled at when I worked in Long Beach, having visitors all the time – it was like, ‘If they are not getting tattooed, get them out of here!’ That was not what I wanted.” 

Whether you’re a movie star or not, you get the same treatment in Shamrock Social Club. Sometimes stars will have their reps call and ask in advance if there’s a back door they can slip through unnoticed and ask for whatever else their special needs may be. But after their first visit to Mahoney’s back room, they don’t seem to mind. Angelina Jolie, David Beckham, Adele and Johnny Depp, who are just a few of his famous clients, are used to coming through the front door on this very busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard – just like everybody else.
“Everybody leaves them alone and we don’t treat them like movie stars,” says Mahoney, who believes this is part of the charm for his many famous clients. “I don’t really see them any differently. It’s all whatever they are going through that makes them want to get tattooed. They have the same problems and joys as we do – they get married, have kids, get divorced, their parents die and so on.”

Mahoney does, however, make house calls, too. He’s brought his equipment and ink to the well-known LA celebrity hot spot Four Seasons at nearby Doheny Drive, many times. He’s also been to Jared Leto’s house to tattoo his back in his kitchen, and went to the Guggenheim in New York to tattoo an angel on the back of Lady Gaga’s head in front of a crowd.
“I think it’s a craft,” Mahoney says about his job being an art form.
“I think it’s partly high art and partly a trade, like plumbing. It’s like somewhere in the middle – still done with these old-fashioned tools that have never really changed and there’s that tribal simplicity to the way it’s done. It’s got refined a little bit, but it hasn’t really changed very much in hundreds of years.”

What has changed is that the art form has gone mainstream. Today, it has become socially acceptable – even mainstream – something Mahoney thinks he has celebrities to thank for. 
“Take Cher and Mickey Rourke, who were some of the first ones to get tattooed,” says Mahoney, who tattooed Rourke in the 80s and calls him his first real Hollywood friend.
“They helped make it more acceptable.”

Mahoney thinks it’s great that more people have tattoos so more can enjoy them, but he also misses the old days when if you were inking someone, the chances were they’d been arrested before. They were just wilder, rougher around the edges and had been in fistfights, or badly beaten up and were just generally tough guys. He admits that was also why he got his first tattoos – he wanted to be one of the tough guys and look mean. And apparently it worked.
“Yeah! I would go beat somebody up!” he says, laughing.

Unlike many other tattoo artists, Mahoney respects his clients’ privacy and doesn’t immediately post pictures on social media to tell the world about it. His take on it is that getting a tattoo is a very personal issue. 
“I think they are kind of private. Once I do a tattoo for you, it’s yours, it’s not mine anymore, so if you want to post it or if you want to tell somebody I did it, fine! It definitely helps my business if they post pictures and word gets out that I tattooed those people. But as far as getting new celebrities, I think the fact that I don’t have a big mouth probably means a big deal too.”

One of his longest-standing clients is Johnny Depp who calls him “the real deal” and a “brother.” Mahoney also refers to Depp as a friend, whom he likes working on – it helps when it takes seven hours to complete a tattoo on his back. Their friendship dates back to his Long Beach days, and Depp has several of Mahoney’s tattoos inked on his body. One is a sparrow on his arm which he got after playing Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Another is of his beloved grandfather on his right arm, which is based on a picture of him from WWII. 
“He’s a loyal friend. A generous and gentle soul. And I love the way he’s an amazing actor but he doesn’t make a huge deal out of the process. He just kind of does it.”

It was Depp who had the idea to cast Mahoney in small roles for Blood Ties (2013) and Black Mass (2015) – with the tattooist being from Boston and the movies being about gangsters, he thought this would be the perfect fit. But for his stint as a prison guard in Twin Peaks, he had to go and audition.
“That was the first audition that I had ever done,” Mahoney says with a slight sense of pride in his voice. “What a great experience and what an amazing guy. Everybody on the set was so cool and so happy and he had brought everybody back from 25 years before, even the craft service people. It’s amazing.”

Mahoney likes doing movies and videos – like when his client Lana Del Rey asked him to appear in her videos “Shades of Cool” and “West Coast.” But most of all Mahoney is still excited about the job he fell in love with as a kid in Boston.
“I still love to tattoo the same way I did,” he says. “And I still feel like a foolish youngster.”

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Last edited: December 11, 2018

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