Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Roger Dubuis
Dr. Woo is one of the most sought-after talents in the tattoo game

Don’t go hitting up Dr. Woo for any pandemic quick-fixes and medical advice. He’s not that kind of a doc. The Los Angeles native is one of the biggest names in the tattooing biz with a wait list that’s near impossible to get on. The good news is that if you are a lucky owner of one of eight complicated wristwatches he co-signed with Roger Dubuis, he might just squeeze you in for some custom ink work.

Dr. Woo’s office is anywhere with a thin needle in hand and a real estate of flesh to work on. He often gets the random work call to prep his kit and zip to an agreed location for the job – and it used to be anywhere around the world before the pandemic hit. Give him a couple of hours tops and he can whip up a design to your liking even if the request only exists in the confines of your imagination. Dr. Woo, whose real name is Brian Woo and whose real occupation is a tattoo artist, might have had average grades in school and earned his prefix without a doctoral degree (it was a nickname he was given that also pokes fun at parental/societal expectations). But the 40-year-old Taiwanese-American has come good thanks to the hustle and hard work and is now a certified stud in the trade. And as much as the father of two tries to steer clear of talk about his A-list clientele, it’s hard not to name drop his regulars either considering they are the walking adverts for his creativity and occupy the top rungs of follower counts on social media (yes, add up the follower count and it’s easily over a billion). And one of the biggest reasons that Woo continues to court the rich and famous is because of his stringent doctor-patient confidentiality – he doesn’t often discuss the tattoos he has done and any shares of his work on the gram are accompanied by captions that require being in that specific inking session to decipher. Woo is known for his fine line, black-and-gray tattoos that toy with geometric shapes, a technique he honed (and later evolved) under his apprenticeship with industry OG Mark Mahoney. Think Morse code-like lines and dots, arachnids, constellations, and roses and you have a quick summary of Woo’s aesthetic though that mainly depends on the request. And if you’re scoffing at his technique, just try free-handing a circle on flesh or shading a shadow let alone putting a needle and permanent ink on skin. Woo’s reputation as a global star in the game means he is now able to afford doing the things he has always wanted outside of his job (he tried starting his own clothing line before he even considered tattooing for a living). Having previously worked on items like sneakers to incense burners, he has now added his own brand of skincare products into the ever-growing portfolio and even got the honour of contributing to Chitose Abe’s successful guest run for Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture collection last July. But when Swiss watchmaker and so-called hyper-horologist Roger Dubuis signed him up as part of a newly-formed Urban Art Tribe last April, Woo got to work on something he never imagined possible this early on in his career – a co-sign on a series of very pricey and complicated wristwatches called the Excalibur Dr Woo Monotourbillon. Unveiled only in November, this new take on the iconic Excalibur is packed with all the hype and horology that hypebeasts are looking for. Those familiar with the famed skeletonisation work on the Excalibur will notice a big change under the hood of the tarnish-resistant pink gold alloy housing according to Woo’s vision. Gone is the metal star-shaped bridge that has been a visual hallmark, the same one that mimic a spider’s web but also double-up as the framework for the manual-winding movement. In its place is a sapphire crystal plate that has been imprinted in gold with an original art work by Woo. This art work shows the journey of a Tintin-esque starship zipping around the dial, leaving a light trail in the pattern of the not-to-be-forgotten star-shaped bridge. Look deeper into the dial and you might notice a secondary metal plate at the back etched with a blueprint-like cosmic map, another one of Woo’s signature designs that is also represented on the closed case back. Now, Woo has one more surprise in the remix that requires an eagle eye. A spider motif is positioned on the sapphire crystal foreground. With only eight wristwatches made in this series, Roger Dubius states that each watch has the spider motif in a different location to ensure all eight owners are getting an entirely unique proposition. And just imagine that this package still has an off-centre flying tourbillon in the flex. We get the low-down from Woo about his work on this serious timepiece.

The Excalibur Dr Woo Monotourbillon is limited to eight pieces

On his first impression of Roger Dubuis:
“I’ve heard about Roger Dubuis as one of the big watch houses. I didn’t know much about them in the beginning because we usually get preoccupied with other mainstream brands. But I love discovering things all the time and I did my research on their history. As an artist, I connect with their dedication to the craft. I have a great respect for them. I’m very picky on who I work with. But once I started talking to their people and got to know the brand – they have been so gracious and cool and informative. And I love learning. I got to see how they make these timepieces that push the envelope.”

On the initial brief for the wristwatch:
“We discussed which model from the catalogue to work on. So we narrowed it down to the Excalibur Single Flying Tourbillon. We played around with some design concepts from there and it was just free rein for me. They never gave me a ‘no’ or a ‘not possible’; it was always ‘let us figure it out’. There was a lot of freedom to try what I wanted to achieve.”

Spot the spider motif on the dial, one of Dr. Woo's design signatures

On the challenge of designing for a smaller real estate:
“I think it was more challenging for Roger Dubuis. I just did what I usually do. They have to show my designs and the clarity of the details on the watch. I just didn’t realise how small it was until I saw the real thing and then I was truly able to appreciate their technical expertise. I don’t know how they got so many details into such a small space.”

On the significance of his sketches for the wristwatch:
“One of the main components of the watch is the star motif of Roger Dubuis which I wanted to reinterpret in my own way. I used it as the propulsion for the rocket to blast it into an unknown universe, in a sense. I love exploration and the idea that the universe is infinite. We have so many unknowns out there. The idea that we can expand our own potential is a key part of being a creative as well as a human. These designs are a language to encourage self-exploration and have us understand that we are not limited. A lot of the celestial designs symbolise many things to me but I like to leave them to interpretation because a beautiful thing is for someone to look at these and apply their own positive spin to it.”

Astrological-like symbols designed by Dr. Woo is also present on the leather strap

On the symbolism of the spider in his work:
“I always find a way to incorporate a spider into my work somehow. When I was an up-and-coming tattoo artist, it was one of the motifs I did as it is also a prominent icon in the history of tattoo designs. I think spiders are architects of the natural world. They are so small and singular but the things that they are able to create – these mathematical structures and webs they use as survival tools – are synonymous to me. I always look to them as my spirit arachnid.”

On the turning points in his career:
“There was a moment I realised that I’ve broken through a wall. It was when I was getting a lot of appointments compared to the days when I was just hoping for walk-ins so I could pay rent. This didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual progression. In the city of Los Angeles, I was getting a lot of recognition from the media and it was then that I realised I might be on to something. But when I started doing non-tattoo related projects, I knew there was something behind all of the hard work. It wasn’t a token of success but it was another door opening for me, and I knew I needed to get to the top of it. I’ve always believed there is a bigger world outside of tattooing. In a weird way, tattooing has helped me pursue other projects again.”

Los Angeles-based Dr. Woo is one of the most prominent names in the tattooing trade

On being an Asian-American and being in the tattooing trade:
“It certainly wasn’t easy to get to this position. I am a first-born son in an Asian family that immigrated here and we were a traditional household. [Art] isn’t exactly the first thing we would be encouraged to pursue but I have very supportive parents who understood over time what I was trying to do. My career trajectory was something different to what they hoped for but they knew it would be something special. There weren’t many tattoo artists when I first started. It was a close-knit community back then and to break into it, I was very fortunate. The people – mainly Mark Mahoney who is a legend in the game – opened their world to me which I am forever grateful for. There are only that many tattoo artists I can count on one hand who I look up to.”

On his piece of advice to those who want to follow in his footsteps:
“I believe in the 10,000-hour rule. I believe nothing can equate experience and you should value the advice of people you respect. I think there are times we are confident in what we do but it isn’t possible to have a 360-degree perspective all the time. It is important to keep grounded.”


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