Mark Mahoney

Mark Mahoney poses outside a tattoo parlor window
Mark Mahoney working on a tattoo in his studio

He’s the modern godfather of tattooing, founder of LA’s iconic Shamrock Social Club and this weekend is guest speaker at the London Tattoo Convention. Ali Catterall charts his rise

“A place where the elite and the underworld meet” runs the slogan of Mark Mahoney’s world-famous tattoo parlour, The Shamrock Social Club, a much-loved fixture of LA’s Sunset Strip. The slogan may have been borrowed from a turn-of-the-century English tattoo parlour but it’s also the perfect description for a studio where “high-art meets low culture”, and to which everyone from A-listers like Angelina Jolie and Fred Durst to West Hollywood’s gang members come to be inked by Mahoney and his fellow tattooists. “I never wanted to be a painter,” the meticulous, intimate body artist says. “This is art for real people.”

Sunset Boulevard, of course, is the perfect location for Mahoney’s studio; a 22-mile-long road once home to an exotic mix of gambling halls and speakeasies, and latterly to the iconic likes of the Viper Room, the Roxy Theatre and the famous Chateau Marmont hotel. It was here where protests and riots took place in the 1960s (and Peter Fonda found himself handcuffed); where Jim Morrison recited ‘An American Prayer’ for a "Norman Mailer for President" rally (not to mention where The Doors played the Whisky A Go-Go); and where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had their first date at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. History rises like steam from its pavements.

As the Boston-Irish Mahoney says, “One of the things about Sunset is that everybody comes here eventually. Besides tourists from all over the world, it's one of the few places in LA where everybody, the rich and poor, comes to sooner or later. Everybody comes to the Strip.”

One of the modern godfathers of tattooing, who has been described as “like a character out of Sam Peckinpah or Martin Scorsese,” the 60 year old Mahoney is as stylish as his rock and film star clients, elegantly attired in a 1940s zoot suit, duster coat and slicked-back hair. His life has been a rollercoaster of addiction, rehab, recovery, success and celebrity. He first fell under the tattooing spell when he was 14, via Buddy Mott’s Tattoo Spot in Rhode Island, New Jersey. Later, he tattooed biker gangs, with the ‘Warrior Spirit’ he forged in Boston as a teenager, before immersing himself in the punk scene where he’d ink punk legends such as Johnny Thunders and Sid Vicious. Like the latter, he too would develop a chronic heroin habit and was forced to close a previous tattoo parlour of his own in 1985 while the grip of addiction, since shrugged off. It was in Los Angeles, in the 1980s, that he’d also develop a signature style; the fine line Black and Gray Movement, based on Latino gang members’ body art, and his clients would include Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG.

He opened the Shamrock in 2002, decorating it with images of the Virgin Mary, JFK and three-leaf clovers, betraying the owner’s 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.” To help facilitate that, 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.

You’ll have to wait a bit, though, if you want to be personally tattooed by Mahoney, who usually works the 5.30-1am late shift: there’s a six-month waiting list. A bespoke design, during a single visit, will set you back around $500 (£300). For more intricate designs, however, you might want to consider a re-mortgage.

Mark Mahoney is guest speaker at the London Tattoo Convention, Sept 28 - 30 2018.