Meet the 'High Priest of Hollywood Tattoo Artists,' who started out illegally tattooing bike gangs and now calls Johnny Depp 'brother'

The MandrakeMark Mahoney.
  • Business Insider recently sat down with the “High Priest of Hollywood Tattoo Artists” Mark Mahoney.
  • The tattooer recently finished a residency at The Mandrake hotel in London’s West End.
  • He told us stories of the old days when he used to tattoo Boston’s bike gangs – when it was illegal at the time.
  • He also talked about the celebrity clientele he now surrounds himself with, including David Beckham, Johnny Depp, and Lana Del Rey.
  • Mahoney might just be the most interesting tattoo artist in the world.

Mark Mahoney is a man who has seen it all.

The legendary so-called “High Priest of Hollywood Tattoo Artists” started out tattooing drunk Hell’s Angels in his native Boston, Massachusetts, and now counts the likes of Johnny Depp and David Beckham as friends. It’s been a hell of a transition for him.

I’m catching up with Mahoney during his residency at The Mandrake hotel in London’s West End, where he’s hosting a £500-a-ticket charity dinner and tattooed VIP clients in the lobby.

I open Mahoney’s hotel room door to find his own piercing blue eyes, which have been immortalised by Lana Del Ray, staring back at me. He’s holding a can of Monster energy and wearing his trademark stand-up collar shirt and a pair of outrageous, purple, crocodile-skin monkstrap shoes.

His voice honestly has to be heard to be believed – it’s like it’s been specifically engineered for an Al Pacino gangster flick.

Mark MahoneyThe Mandrake

As he sits down, Mahoney tells me that he recently recovered from throat cancer, which may have something to do with why he sounds like Ray Liotta after a heavy night out.

In the tattoo world, Mahoney is known as the founding father of black-n-grey single needle art, which was born out of jailhouse tattooing as prisoners often only had access to one needle (instead of the traditional five or seven needle cluster) and no colours.

“When I was a kid I’d get a box of crayons,” Mark tells me, “and a couple days later the black one would be half an inch long and the colours would be untouched.

“So, the black and grey single needle style was more the way my aesthetic – the way I drew – worked.”

He started tattooing in his native Boston when he was just 15, back when doing it was still illegal. His patrons weren’t exactly law-abiding types anyway, mostly Hells Angels bikers.

I get a lot of calls from prison, yeah.

He got out of the east coast just in time, he tells me, as the tattooers he left behind were either getting arrested by the police or hit up by the mafia who wanted a slice of their action.

Now that every teen boy band and their mums are covered in ink, I ask Mahoney if tattoos have lost some of the outlaw appeal that once made them so enticing.

“I never thought it would be this big or this socially accepted,” he says. “[Back in the day] it kind of symbolised… bikers and gangsters – those were all the people I got in the business to be around.”

Mahoney still gets some of his old clientele coming into the shop, though, apparently: “I get a lot of calls from prison, yeah.”

Kanye West, Designer Giuseppe Zanotti and Tattoo artist Mark Mahoney attend the Giuseppe Zanotti Design Beverly Hills Store Opening cocktail reception held on February 4, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California.John Sciulli / Getty Images for Giuseppe Zanotti Design

You would have thought painfully etching indelible ink into the backs, sides, arms, and faces of America’s hardened criminals would be a daunting task, but Mahoney says he always knew it was where he was meant to be.

He tells me about a time he was setting up a tattoo for a rival biker gang’s president – “He had just gotten out of jail and the club that I was working for was offering my services to this guy to kind of suck up to him.”

It’s winter in Boston and Mark’s equipment is ice cold, he says. “I go to spray his back to prepare the thing and it’s freezing so he rears up; knocks me on my a–; the whole table falls over with all my stuff.

“I’m staring up at the ceiling with the huge swastika flag [on the ceiling] and this six-foot-eight behemoth that I have to tattoo and it occurred to me like an outer body experience that, ‘you could be nervous now, you should be nervous now.’

“But somehow I knew I’d always be nervous, you know, and I just wanted to be a tattooer and a good one so bad that it didn’t affect me.”

Mahoney’s come a long way from the swastika-covered clubhouses of Massachusetts’ most-feared bikers.

He moved to Long Beach, California in 1980 and lived in the same tattoo parlour that he worked in – an experience that he called “colourful, to say the least.”

Mark MahoneyGregorio Soave / The Mandrake

Since then he’s opened his own place on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, the Shamrock Social Club, which attracts clients including David Beckham, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Rihanna, Adele, One Direction – the list literally goes on forever and is like a who’s who of Hollywood A-listers. He also has a story about every single one.

Mahoney tells me that David Beckham is “the ultimate tattoo customer” – “he picks good stuff, he’s got great skin, he feels absolutely no pain.”

His relationship with the soccer legend eventually led him to tattoo his eldest son, Brooklyn, an experience which he called “a real honour.”

David Beckham comes to mind as the ultimate tattoo customer.

“I know at 18 I was trying to do the opposite of what my dad was up to. So, I was really happy and proud to be a part of that,” he said.

His closest celebrity client, though, is Johnny Depp.

Depp told The Hollywood Reporter last year that Mahoney “is amongst the finest tattoo artists to have ever plied the trade.”

“I’ve known him since forever and I’ve got the ink to prove it. He’s my brother,” Depp said.

“We talk while he works. He once worked on my back for seven hours straight and that don’t feel too good. I couldn’t see a thing he was doing, but I trust him with everything I got.”

While Depp was playing Irish hoodlum James “Whitey” Bulger in the 2015 film “Black Mass,” Mahoney says he came into his shop on an unusually regular basis. “I think he was kind of studying my Boston accent,” he says. “He got an inordinate number of tattoos that year.”

Mahoney also played a small part in the film himself.

Mark Mahoney and Nicole Mahoney attend the 'Black Mass' Boston special screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on September 15, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.Paul Marotta / Getty Images for Warner BrothersMark Mahoney and Nicole Mahoney attend the ‘Black Mass’ Boston special screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on September 15, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Celebrities don’t always come to his shop, though – sometimes he gets flown out to them.

Mahoney recalls tattooing Suge Knight in 1996, the former rap mogul who famously drove the car in which rapper Tupac Shakur was shot and killed in, when he suddenly got invited on an impromptu trip to Chicago.

“He looked like Paul Newman in ‘Hud,’ but he had a huge bite mark – uppers and lowers – on his face and you could see individual teeth.”

“He [Knight] was like, ‘Mark go pack your stuff up and come with me to Chicago,’ and I was like, ‘OK!’ So I packed my stuff up and then me and 20 people are on a Learjet eating catfish 20 minutes later, it was great!”

Mahoney doesn’t strike me as a man who’s ever been afraid to take a risk, which is reinforced by another anecdote he tells me about a handsome Texan.

Apparently, the man was going from shop to shop asking for a tattoo on his face, but no one would do it. “He looked like Paul Newman in ‘Hud,'” Mark says, “but he had a huge bite mark – uppers and lowers – on his face and you could see individual teeth.

“He wanted a kiss in between it – some kind of Texas bar room, comedy and tragedy – and everybody had said no.

“I was like, ‘S— that’s a great idea! I’d love to do that, what’s the matter with you?”

Speaking to Mahoney, it’s easy to see why he’s captured the imagination of so many fellow artists – he’s the spellbinding character that actors try to replicate; the rogue that musicians make their muse. He’s just really cool.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the magician David Blaine, who once received a tattoo across his back from Mahoney over the course of 24 hours, said: “When Mark tattoos, you are not actually aware of the needle; instead you are entranced by the piercing of his eyes, which is always complemented by an incredible conversation.”

In this sense, Mahoney may be the perfect tattoo artist: Here is a man so intensely interesting, who has lived so many lives and met so many people, that you don’t actually realise you’re being inked at all.

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