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Interview by: Thursday 27 June 2019
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Special Guest: Legendary Tattoo Artist Mark Mahoney

The legendary Mark Mahoney, one of the modern godfathers of tattooing, is among the very special judges at this year’s London Tattoo Convention. No pressure, contestants! Ahead of his appearance, we step inside his iconic studio on LA’s Sunset Strip...

“I never wanted to be a painter,” says Mark Mahoney, stylishly attired in a 1940s zoot suit, duster coat and slicked-back hair. “This is art for real people.” Indeed, the slogan of his world-famous tattoo parlour, The Shamrock Social Club, is: “A place where the elite and the underworld meet”. And as such, it’s become a much-loved fixture of LA’s Sunset Strip; where “high-art meets low culture”, and to which everyone from One Direction and Angelina Jolie to West Hollywood’s gang members come to be inked by the man described as “like a character out of Sam Peckinpah or Martin Scorsese”. 

The Strip is the perfect location for Mahoney’s studio; history rises like steam from the 22-mile-long pavement, once home to gambling halls and speakeasies, where The Doors played the Whisky A Go-Go, and Monroe and DiMaggio had their first date at the Rainbow Bar & Grill.

Rich or poor, “everybody comes to the Strip,” says Mahoney, and that diversity is part of the appeal. That said, “When I first got to LA there were gunfights out the front of the shop,” he recalls, and for a nice Catholic boy from Boston that was a little shocking!”

The celebrity body artist first fell under the tattooing spell when he was 14, via Buddy Mott’s Tattoo Spot in Rhode Island, New Jersey. “The second I walked in to the tattoo shop I knew that was what I had to do,” he says. “It was a cool old shop that hadn’t been changed since the 1940s. I always drew in those long winters in Boston, so I knew I was going to do something with my art, then when I saw there was a way to make a living without being in a snotty gallery setting, I dug it.”

As a teenager he’d tattoo biker gangs, before immersing himself in punk, inking scene legends like Johnny Thunders and Sid Vicious. Like the latter, he’d also develop a heroin habit, long since shrugged off. In Los Angeles, in the 1980s, he’d also develop his signature style; the fine line Black and Gray Movement, based on Latino gang members’ body art; his clients would include the Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur. 

He opened the Shamrock in 2002, decorating it with images of the Virgin Mary, JFK and three-leaf clovers, betraying his Irish-Catholic origins. “I wanted a place where people would feel welcome," he says. "People remember the nights they got tattooed… I wanted to make that as memorable and as nice an experience as it can be.” The parlour also has a small library and a pool table, and clients are encouraged to play while they wait to be inked in the pink-walled rear room – hence the “social club” bit of the name. 

Mahoney typically works the 5.30-1am late shift, but you’ll have to wait a time if you want to be personally tattooed by him: there’s a six-month waiting list. A bespoke design, during a single visit, will set you back around $500 (£300) – and if Mahoney thinks you’ve made a bad decision? “I usually can schmooze them out of it,” he grins.