Brian Woo is known for getting under people’s skin. Literally.
Well, more like inside their skin. Known professionally as Dr. Woo, the 40-year-old SoCal native has built a name as the go-to tattoo artist to Los Angeles’ hype-happy creative class, permanently drawing on the dermis of A-list celebs including Zoë Kravitz, Drake, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. In the process, the Chinese American ink master, who has a studio at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, has become something of a celebrity, amassing a sizable social media following (1.8 million on Instagram) that is in thrall to his fine-line, heavily detailed style.
A veteran of the iconic Melrose parlor Shamrock Social Club, Woo also has made serious inroads into the fashion community of late. He’s collaborated with brands ranging from the popular sneaker brand Converse to the high-end Japanese label Sacai, but now he’s returning to what he knows best with his line of grooming products, Woo Skin Essentials. Launched late last year, the collection ($18 to $95 at Maxfield, Violet Grey and projectwoo.co) ranges from tattoo after-care products to everyday goods such as moisturizer, body wash, soap and lip balm. We spoke to the in-demand entrepreneur about his latest project.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
I read that you learned about American culture growing up through household products. Can you tell us about that?
It was household products, the ads you’d see, predominantly white families using them. It wasn’t so much like, “I don’t look like them” or “I don’t get treated like them.” It was more like, “This is what it is.” Anything from cereal to milk. The Gap, Vans, Converse. Morton Salt — that girl holding the umbrella. Folgers! Like, Folgers was an American morning.
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Did that influence your decision to start a skin-care line?
Yeah, that was definitely a big part of the mental planning of what I would want to create. It was this idea that you open up a cabinet or you look at your bathroom counter, and it just belongs — like it’s always been there.
Your work is connected to people’s skin. Was there a specific moment or circumstance that inspired you to create your own products?
I wanted a new challenge. I find branding and creating consumer products really interesting. The designer side of me wanted to create something tangible — that’s part of a person’s everyday life. Skin is something that I’ve worked closely with for a long time — all different skin types. I have very sensitive skin, so my options are limited. I wanted to create something for people like me. I remember the first few tattoos I got became infected. I thought I was allergic to tattoos. But I had to do research, which led me to one product that worked for me whereas other people could use a multitude.
The Woo Skin Essentials products focus on clean ingredients. Why was that important to you?
I had a lot of insight on how skin reacts to tattoos and what sun damage does. You can see how a person lives through their skin. But I wasn’t familiar with ingredients. Working with the team, I learned what different ingredients can do for different goals a person may have [and] also an understanding [of] how hard it is to make products with certain ingredients. One of the products I’m most proud of is the bar soap because it has three ingredients. And it sounds like it would be easier with fewer ingredients, but it’s actually difficult. Essentially, the less you have, the less harmful things you’re putting in contact with your body.
Has grooming or self-care always been important to you?
I lived pretty recklessly in my youth. Coming up as a tattoo artist in my early 20s, it wasn’t always the way it is now. I don’t live the same way. I have two kids. I got to a point where self-care was more important to me, and it’s trickling down. A lot of the younger kids that I speak with, it’s something that they’re aware of. I try my best. I’m not a model citizen for health and wellness but I try.
Obviously, you care about aesthetics and design. Tell us how you approached the packaging for Woo Skin Essentials. It’s very cool and elevated.
I have a lot of ideas and visions, but when it came to packaging and how things are made, I leaned on my team members. I have a wonderful designer who’s amazing. I would send her ideas, like the vision that I wanted. There are a lot of things I didn’t think about, you know? Like how the logo looks, how people will see it first; textures when it comes to packaging. But what we really wanted was to keep our footprint as small as possible. So our packaging is made from recycled paper, vegan inks. A lot is stamped so we minimize our printing. I wanted something sleek. We really thought about places we envisioned the product, places it would look good in, and then reverse-engineered that vibe. Moving forward, we’re going to add in some more products, and I’d like to add splash and a little more fun. A little more color. But that’s the cool part. There aren’t rules. You can always reinvent yourself and add things you’re emotionally connected to.
Do you plan to expand into different categories?
We definitely have a long-term plan of growing this into other daily essentials. We have a collaboration coming out. We have a body wash coming out with a very light fragrance. We like having these weird little ideas and seeing where they take us. And we have great partners, Violet Grey and Maxfield — you know, people that I respect and am honored to be in because of our like-minded view on things. The cool thing about our brand is that you know a lot of people in my position might say this is a play you should make. Slap your logo on this thing and direct your followers to it. But this is something that I’m passionate about. It’s a passion project. We care about what we do. We care for it and nurture it.
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What’s your personal grooming routine: involved or minimal?
When I was traveling a lot, it was fairly involved. Being in a plane, traveling, you have to moisturize and hydrate your skin, especially your face. I’ll admit that this last year being at home I haven’t been doing as much. We have a body moisturizer but it really works well everywhere. I use it before bed and when I wake up. I just started training again at a private jiu-jitsu studio and, after a hard workout and a harsh shower with that hard water, it comes in handy.
What’s your favorite product from your line?
If I was still getting tattooed heavily, I’d choose the after-care kit because it comes with the soap and it has the after-care lotion. But the after-care lotion is made in a way that it could be your daily moisturizer. But since I’m not, I would have to say it’s the daily moisturizer. It really is good for everything. It’s fragrance-free. It’s not greasy. You can put it on your face, wherever. It’s an all-around go-to.