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Dr. Woo on learning to work from anywhere and launching new lines in a lockdown


Published on September 25, 2020

If your pre-pandemic workspace was a cubicle, working on a laptop in your living room might feel like a relief. But if your typical workday involves tattooing dragons on Queen Daenerys at a secret hideaway in Hollywood, working from home is bound to feel a little less glamorous.

Known for a unique single-needle style that made him one of the most influential tattoo artists in the world, Dr. Woo has spent much of his career working in his private studio, then traveling the world to showcase his work. Last April, he and his team were on the verge of expanding his business into brand new territory—the introduction of a skincare line. 

Then came the pandemic. Like the rest of us, he’s had to adapt to a new way of working. New surroundings. New distractions. New tools for connecting with collaborators he couldn’t see in person. So what happens when life-changing plans are put on hold? We spoke with Dr. Woo to find out how he stays motivated and inspired even during a lockdown.

Dr. Woo’s tattoos on the wrist of Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke
Dr. Woo’s tattoos on the wrist of Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones

How has the pandemic affected the way you work?

In a way, I have to be more accountable. When I'm in the routine of the office, I have everyone helping me. Now without those blinders and constraints, I’m a little lost at times. But it's retrained me to be more efficient and more dutiful when it comes to my obligations in the work side. 

Working from a different environment is interesting. If a chef cooks in his kitchen, but then you take him out to the top of a cliff, it's hard for him, but it's also a beautiful thing to experience something you do in a different surrounding. That’s kind of how I feel. I'm plucked from my element, but bringing what I do to a different plateau. Now I know I can truly work from anywhere.

How does your home working environment compare to your studio? 

In my studio, it's dimly lit, dark and moody. It's got a cool, cozy vibe. But being home, we live on top of a hill. There's a lot of big windows, a lot of sun. So I'm instantly transported. It uplifts me a little bit differently.

Dr. Woo Studio — Hideaway at Suite X
Dr. Woo’s home office

“I'm plucked from my element, but bringing what I do to a different plateau. Now I know I can truly work from anywhere.”

Getting to work where you're comfortable is different. In your office, you feel like, “Okay, I’m here. It's go time.” When you're working from a place where you think “That's where you're supposed to relax,” it's interesting. All those relaxing points help when they don't interfere. But it just puts my work in a different setting. That's kind of nice, you know?

When there's no separation between work and home life, it can be hard to tell when the workday is over. Has the structure of your workday changed while sheltering in place?

Time management is a factor when it comes to interaction with the family at home. Here, you have to know when you turn off work and turn on “father.” At the office, I didn’t have to tell the kids “Hey, Daddy's working.” There is something about having to tell them, “Hey, I'm on a call” that kind of sucks, because technically, it is my work time, but to have to say that breaks the home/family relationship and work relationship.  

My work is so sporadic. What I do is so all over the place—I deal with partners and artist collaborators all over the world. So I'm always working even when I'm at home. When it's the other side of the world day time, I'm still working. A lot of things we do, we don't know details until the last minute. I can't put the emails on hold till after the weekend. I have to constantly stay up to it. So on that side, it’s not too different for me because I'm constantly just working.

What did your creative process look like before the pandemic and what does it look like now? 

Finding focus right now is difficult because there are so many different timelines and schedules when you're working separately with different people. You have to wedge yourself in between those things and move through it like an eel. Even though you don't see the people you work with as much, it’s important to keep those relationships strong because they help keep you intact. They keep me focused and on the ball. 

In terms of my creative process, with every art project, we read the situation with what we're doing and see what's speaking to me in that context. Visually, things that I see that remind me of a time or place, a piece of art or interaction I've had—those things come back to me in a graphic way. I want to create a feeling visually and mentally. So I first think, “How would I do it? How would I feel about it?” Then I exude that feeling.

“Finding focus right now is difficult because there are so many different timelines and schedules when you're working separately with different people.”

It's harder now because we have fewer places to go. I honestly have never done a Zoom or FaceTime meeting or interview before this. When you're interacting with someone in person, there's so many factors—the waiter walking by or all these other distractions. But when I’m doing this, I'm super focused and listening because you have to absorb everything through the screen. That's helped me have a different perspective and get inspired from different things that people are telling me or the way I'm interacting with people.

Have you had any difficulty brainstorming over video calls?

When you're with someone, there is a natural vibe that bounces off each other. When you can see it in their eyes, the spark of something, and then it goes, “Oh, I know what they're on to.” I'm already thinking of that and then how to counter that and then you go back and forth. You can talk over each other better in person. 

For brainstorm meetings, I like getting in a car and driving somewhere together, like a trip. All the best conversations and explosions of ideas always happen when I'm in the car. You have nothing else to focus on. Even if it’s not a brainstorm for a new creative idea, if you're in the car and just start talking about your childhood with your friend, you start clicking on something, you know? It'll take you down a path where something will trigger something creatively in another way. That's the best stuff. I always come up with something.

What is it about being in the car that helps spark ideas? The forward motion? The change of scenery? Just being out of the office environment?

I think it's being out of the formality of an office. You're constantly absorbing something new that's going past you visually. You're in there and you're vulnerable. When you're vulnerable with someone, and you can't go anywhere, you have to trust them. When you trust each other, you can start being honest with ideas and then you really let the good stuff out. 

What inspired the idea of creating a skincare line?

I've been working closely with skin for the better part of the last decade. Growing up, I had really sensitive skin. So at a young age, I was already aware of skincare and the importance of how we interact with products, how they can irritate and create an abrasive relationship. Those were two separate things in my life. As I started going forward, they started coming together. 

Tattoo aftercare was always a question. Every tattoo artist has his own way of taking care of your tattoo. There was no one general rule. For me, since I did have sensitive skin, I had to take care of mine in the simplest, cleanest way possible, without any fragrances or extra chemicals. 

I grew up here as a first generation kid. My parents immigrated here and I learned about America and the people around me through household products. That's one thing that connected me with other kids is we all use Tide or Jergens lotion, you know? In a weird way, I used commercialism as a lesson in being an American. But I always thought it would be cool if I could create a household name. 

“When you're vulnerable with someone, and you can't go anywhere, you have to trust them. When you trust each other, you can start being honest with ideas and then you let the good stuff out.”

It was an idea I kicked around in my head: How would a young tattoo artist like me ever do that? But I wanted to start a skincare brand, but for everyone, not just for people with tattoos. So I got a great manager and partners who pushed me to explore it. Then we met Miguel at CollabWorks, a product development team that works with emerging categories. They helped us find laboratories and product development people and put a structure and plan together. I'm an artist. I cannot think that way. So it's nice to have these people support me and teach me how to start a brand and how to work with products. It was quite an adventure. 

Hornitos was an amazing partner as well. They fund interesting projects and took a chance on this weird little idea. We're so lucky that they decided to help us. It’s taught me so much about being a founder. It’s this next level up in this chapter of my life.

Launching a new product line in the midst of a pandemic must’ve been challenging. How did you decide when was a good time to go live?

We were going to launch in April, at the same time everything happened. No one really knew what to do. It was so much still so up in the air—how to proceed, not only with business but in terms of personal safety. So we pushed it back, and said, “Alright, let's table this for a while and see when we can launch, because it could be next week, or four months from now. Who knows?”

During that time, the team and I talked all the time. We were really affected by what's going on. We had all this soap ready to be sold and shipped. Then someone said, “We all have to wash our hands.” That was one of the first things we heard. “Keep your hands clean. Don't touch your face.” You didn't need an antibacterial soap. You just need good lather and warm water. And our soap is super at lathering. So we said, “Let's do something here. Let's give back before we even hit the pavement running. Let's do something for the community.”

So we partnered with an organization called Baby2Baby, which is an amazing charity that helps kids who need resources. I wanted to start with an organization in my community. As a father, I couldn't even imagine what it'd be like for my kids not to have these resources, especially at a time like now. 

So we raised over $270,000 and donated every single cent to Baby2Baby. We banded together and worked on this project as our skincare brand, but not as a commercial driving profit. It was cool, because we didn't have an ulterior motive. It was like, “Let's see how much money we can raise to help Baby2Baby.” I feel like it kept the “WD 40 in the gears.” It kept us going with our weekly check ins and managing our product and learning how the online sales go. 

How did you use Dropbox as you were developing the new product?

I don't know how we would have done it without using Dropbox, to be honest. Because for me, I was so used to just texting. I'm not savvy with the screens at all besides social media. I would text five pictures and then email 20 pictures and then they’d tell me, “Oh, we never got any of them.” I’d go back into like all your files are too big. None of them were sent. It was annoying, because we couldn't be in person to meet. 

So how do we share ideas? Put it in the Dropbox. Then you go and download everything you need. On the tool side, it was very important to keep us connected, archive our information, and be able to send large files. Even before we were locked down, it was such an important thing, because a lot of our team live in different places. We have people in San Francisco and Chicago. Our product development team, one’s in Nashville, one’s on the east coast. For all of us to stay in tune and share our information properly, we had to all have a shared Dropbox folder. 

Dropbox Paper was great. Being able to do edits right there and send them back and forth, instead of having to like screenshot, then send a separate note. It was all in one place. For me, that was key because I'm a visual and at the moment, person. If I didn't just do it right there and send it back, I’d completely forget. 

What would you like to do with the Woo brand when we're on the other side of the pandemic?

A big part of the Woo brand is the lifestyle—traveling the world, seeing people, being with people, creating experiences and interacting with different cultures and cities. Because our world can be so small now, it'd be a shame to not take advantage of that. A lot of what I do is inspired by my travels. It's such a key element. There's so many different places that we wanted to go show the product or have a presentation or do a pop up. The first thing will be a global sharing tour to start spreading the word in different countries, and showcasing that it's a lifestyle brand for everyone, with or without tattooed skin.