Famed tattoo artist Mark Mahoney is going strong on the Sunset Strip

Mark Mahoney, celebrity tattooer in his studio in West Hollywood
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Mahoney has inked some of the top names in Hollywood.

Operating out of an upscale tattoo parlor near the western end of the Sunset Strip, the owner of the Shamrock Social Club has become the go-to man for celebrities seeking tattoos.

On a recent Thursday evening, wearing a fashionable gray suit over brown alligator-skin shoes, the lanky 56-year-old strolled through the busy studio, decorated with three-leaf clovers and portraits of the Virgin Mary, on his way to his customary 5:30 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift.

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Several of Mahoney’s nine employees were already at work, their needles buzzing over custom tattoos that cost from $500 for a single sitting to many thousands of dollars for an elaborate tattoo.

The salon and its owner are so busy that clients sometimes wait six months for an appointment with the boss, whose Hollywood clients include actors Mickey Rourke and Johnny Depp. Mahoney is so respected that fellow tattoo artists come in to consult with him on new styles and techniques.

“He’s legendary in the tattoo world,” said Todd Honma, who teaches a Pomona College course on the art of the tattoo.

“Mark is more of a celebrity than the celebrities he does,” said client John Eshaya, a fashion designer who had come in to have Mahoney ink him a new tattoo — his third, with the words “Los Angeles” on his left side. “He’s a beautiful artist. You don’t get them from anybody else.”

Success was a long time in coming for the soft-spoken, gray-haired Boston native. Introduced to the art of tattooing as a teenager, Mahoney spent years studying the work of artists in Rhode Island and New York, trying to learn their secrets.

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“Nobody was willing to share tattoo secrets and teach others,” Mahoney said.

Eventually, he headed west and found a home in Long Beach on the Pike, the famed amusement park that was then home to many tattoo artists.

It was there that he encountered the fine-line black and gray tattoos that would become his signature style.

“It blew my mind,” Mahoney says now. “I knew it’s what I wanted to do — the low-rider, Mexican style that started in the prisons.”

Working hard, Mahoney spent years toiling in other tattoo salons before opening his own shop in 1985 — only to lose it within four years, he said, to a crippling heroin addiction.

Mahoney went through rehab, and despite the advice of counselors who warned him it would be hard to work as a tattoo artist without returning to drugs, returned to the work he loved. He married, had two children and in 2002 opened the Shamrock Social Club.

The late punk rockers Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders were among Mahoney’s first celebrity clients. Actors and rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. followed.

His secret? Discretion.

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“I don’t tell the magazines,” Mahoney said. “I don’t take pictures of them. I don’t let anybody bother them. I treat them like regular people.”

Close contact with Hollywood has brought the artist, who lives in Pasadena with his wife of 18 years and their two daughters, small roles in the movies “Americano” and “Blood Ties.”

The late-night hours take him away from his family, which Mahoney says is a “challenge.”

“I’m naturally a night owl, but [the work] keeps me away from my wife and kids,” Mahoney said. “I have to make the most of the time we have together.”

In his spare time, Mahoney, a regular churchgoer, renovates old cars.

The rise of the tattoo as a mainstream product has meant good business for tattoo artists, but also more competition. Mahoney hints that although he’s made a good living from his art, he hasn’t gotten rich.

“I’ve been doing this for a long-enough time that I’m at the point where I can live comfortable,” he said, adding, “but not comfortable enough to want my daughter to do it” for a living.

He doesn’t expect that to change. The popularity of the tattoo as a form of personal expression, he believes, is here to stay — even with a starting figure of $500.

“Tattoos might be a little expensive,” Mahoney said. “But you get a lot out of them.”