The business of tattoos: Meet the man who inks Hollywood for a high price

Meet the tattooist to the stars
Meet the tattooist to the stars

Name a celebrity and Mark Mahoney has probably tattooed them.

The prolific tattoo artist has inked the likes of Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp and Adele. But it's less about the name, and more about the art for Mahoney.

"I look at it as a way to make people feel better about themselves," he told CNBC. "It's really a wonderful feeling that you get and I like giving that to people."

CNBC | Benjamin Hall

As a teenager in Boston, Massachusetts, Mahoney was drawn to the industry the moment he walked into a tattoo shop, describing the experience as an "epiphany."

But tattooing was illegal in Massachusetts — for health reasons; the ban was overturned in 2000 — when Mahoney first took an interest 40 years ago, so he's surprised by his own success on a mainstream scale.

"There were no books in the library. There was nothing I could find about it when I started, so this is like another planet. I didn't think this would ever be like this in my wildest dream," he said.

His rise to become a tattooist to the stars began in the 1980s when celebrities including his friend Mickey Rourke began hanging out at his tattoo shop and popularizing the look.

From there, Mahoney carved a name for himself and attracted some of the biggest stars in the world to his tattoo shop, the Shamrock Social Club, in Hollywood.

"My strong suit is that I'm a good listener. I listen to what they say and I'm of the mind that it's a joint effort, it's me and you, it's not my artwork on you, it's our artwork."

CNBC | Benjamin Hall

A session with Mahoney starts "around $500 or $1,000 and can go up from there," but the money is a "secondary thing" for him.

Mahoney says he still lives a "tattooist way of life" of not saving what his high-paying customers exchange for an original tattoo.

"The nature of the tattoo beast is that no matter how much you pay me I'm going to spend all that money, I'm not going to save any of it," Mahoney said. "You make money every day and you spend it every day and you don't worry about the future. That's for squares."

Business is booming for a surprising reason for Mahoney, as a new audience is finding its way to his shop.

"It seems like at the Shamrock every day is mother-daughter day. There's mothers and daughters coming in to get tattooed and that idea is so foreign to me," he said.

"I can't believe that that's what we've come to, and it's great for business and I'm grateful that it's happened, but I miss the shadowy underworld aspect of it a little bit."

CNBC | Benjamin Hall

For the next generation of tattoo artists, Mahoney wants them to remember why they're working in the industry.

"I think you have to love people. There are tattooists that love art and aren't so good with people, and I think the love of people has to be at the root of it," he said.

"You've got to kind of get yourself an ego out of the way and give the people what they want and remember that's paramount."