Sunday, 28 September 2008
LOS ANGELES - He is the Michelangelo of the hip-hop world, the acclaimed tattoo artist to practically every rap star seeking an elaborate, perfectly lettered, black-and-white body drawing that comes complete with an instant dose of street cred.
More recently, though, Mr. Cartoon’s work has been showing up everywhere. You’ll find it on lithographs, on hot-selling Joker brand T-shirts, on high-end Nike shoes. That’s not to mention the framed paintings that cover an entire wall of his studio, which is buried deep in an anonymous section of warehouses on the edge of gritty Skid Row.
“That will be later in my life when that stuff kicks in,” the 39-year-old artist says as he gestures to the works and briefly ruminates about someday spending more time creating fine art. Already, he says, some of his works have been hung in galleries in Paris, London and Amsterdam.
But for now he keeps coming back to the genre in which he first made his mark — tattoos.
“Nothing like skin,” he says as he pauses the whirling needle that sounds like a quieter version of a dentist’s drill to look up briefly from the arm of a customer he’s spent the last several minutes inking.
“The only canvas that bleeds,” he says with a smile. “The only canvas that moves. Where the art directs you.”
With tattoos covering almost every exposed part of his body, from the back of his shaved head to his ankles, Mr. Cartoon is not only an artist but a living billboard for his art.
Short and stocky, and dressed in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, he’s sometimes been described as looking like the central casting version of a street gang member. But his friendly demeanor and penchant for waxing nostalgic about his childhood (”My first computer,” he says pointing to an old manual typewriter) quickly dispel that image.
Skin, meanwhile, is the canvas that made him an L.A. underground legend, ever since he put an elaborate drawing of an urban street scene onto one of Eminem’s arms.
Soon after, just about everyone else in the hip-hop world was beating a path to his door. And they had to — because he wasn’t going to them. Mr. Cartoon doesn’t accept walk-in customers, won’t list his phone number in the book and, until recently, wouldn’t even say where his studio was.
Still, high-profile customers managed to find him.
“Done Eminem and 50 Cent. Missy Elliott, Keyshia Cole, Usher, Pepe Aguilar, Cypress Hill,” he says, not bothering to look up at the celebrity photos on another wall.
But most of his business is provided by “blue-collar guys who want to save their money and come get a nice tattoo.”
They are guys like Bobby Flores of Los Angeles, who met him years ago at a lowrider car show, when Cartoon was a kid hawking airbrushed T-shirts. Since then, the artist has etched an entire mural of Los Angeles on Flores’ back.
He uses a Sharpie marker to draw about 90 percent of his tattoos and then he inks them. There’s no pattern.
“It’s not cheap,” Flores says of the cartoonist’s work. “But he’s the best. He’s the world famous Mr. Cartoon. I wouldn’t let anybody else touch me.”
The artist won’t say what he charges, adding that every circumstance is different. The result: rumors have circulated on the Internet that a Mr. Cartoon tattoo can fetch anywhere from $100 to $20,000 depending on how well-heeled you are and how elaborate a one-of-a-kind drawing you want.
As for price: “I just say if you’re asking about price you’re at the wrong spot,” he says. “Focus on the quality. Focus on the style you want. Find the artist and then negotiate.”
There was a time, he acknowledges, when he’d do them for free. That was before he was very good.
“You’ve just got to practice,” he says of learning the art. “Your friends don’t have any money, you don’t have any experience. Perfect situation.”
He was Mark Machado back then, although his friends were already calling him Cartoon. He threw the Mister in front to dress it up a little. These days it annoys him if someone tries to address him as Mark.
“The only ones who call me by my Christian name,” he says, “are my mother and my wife. And my wife only if she’s angry at me.”
As Mr. Cartoon, he drifted into tattooing after trying his hand at numerous other art forms, including graffiti, airbrushing, etching and an ill-fated nine months at a trade school trying to learn sign-painting.
“They gave me the boot,” chuckles the ordinarily laconic Cartoon. “The teacher told me, ‘Man, you’re a great artist, maybe the best in the class. But you’ve got to go. You don’t turn nothin’ in.’”
Things began to look up after he was busted for spraying graffiti on a building and ordered to pay $800 in restitution. He had no idea where the money would come from until he landed a job painting a mural on the wall of a gymnasium.
“They went, ‘How much to do the mural?’ And I went, “Eight hundred dollars, sir.’ And I kind of never looked back.”
If he hasn’t gone mainstream in the years since, Cartoon has slowly begun to go more public. His main studio is still more or less a secret hideout but he recently opened a more public one. Called Skid Row Tattoos, it is located in a rapidly gentrifying section of the hardscrabble neighborhood, an area Cartoon says he wants to give something back to.
Although his name isn’t on the sign out front, anyone familiar with his work will recognize the place immediately from the beautiful airbrushed lowrider motorcycle on display in the front window. If that isn’t enough, the boutique next door carries Joker brand clothes and Cartoon’s line of Nike shoes.
Back in the day, he used to live at the main studio a mile or so away. He would throw big parties there that helped spread his reputation.
These days he says he leads a slightly more sedate life, with a wife and four kids and a house in the suburbs.
“I’m a white-picket-fence man now,” he says with a laugh as he walks into the main studio.
Moments before, as he was maneuvering his tricked-out pickup truck through downtown traffic, he had reflected on growing older but not losing his connection to the rough-and-tumble side of L.A. that inspired so much of his art. As he spoke, menacing looking clown faces (a Mr. Cartoon trademark) stared up from the vehicle’s floor mats.
“Hopefully you grow up and you have a family and you change,” he mused at one point. “Some guys never change. But the majority of us get older, we start clothing companies, we start design centers, graphic design houses. And we go for broke.”