L.A. tattoo and graffiti-style
artist Mister Cartoon has moved
from outlaw tagger to the
corporate big time (and thats
big as in billboard). The
graphic designer has lent his
style and coveted street cred to
a variety of products including
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,
T-Mobiles Sidekick and Nikes
limited-edition Air Force 1
shoes. Here hes at work in his
warehouse studio on the
billboard commissioned by
Universal Studios to publicize
the latest entry in its
street-racing movie franchise
Fast & Furious.
The mural turned billboard
is distinctly L.A., depicting muscle cars, a femme fatale, a Mexican Dia de Los
Muertos skeleton and the movies name emblazoned in gothic gangster font.
Cartoon kept his low
rider-driving image intact for
the unveiling, arriving in his
customized 64 Chevy Impala and
bouncing on hydraulic springs
before reporters and
photographers assembled for the
LOS ANGELES (By Chris Lee, LATimes)
April 4, 2009)
Mister Cartoon eyeballed a blank
spot on the giant graffiti mural and
rattled his can of spray paint. An
aerosol hiss filled the air. With a
few fluid swipes of his beefy arm,
an image began to take shape: a
cluster of storm clouds massing
above a Windex blue hot rod.
"If I knew the cops were coming to
bust me, I could probably finish
this whole thing in an hour," the
street artist joked.
Cartoon is standing atop a ladder in
front of a 14-by-48 canvas in his
cavernous warehouse studio in an
industrial cul-de-sac just past
L.A.'s skid row. His work in
progress would hardly qualify as
vandalism. The billboard was
commissioned by Universal Studios to
publicize the latest entry in its
street-racing movie franchise, "Fast
The burly Cartoon, with a shaved
head and gang-inspired tattoos
creeping down his forearms and up
his neck, has become one of
corporate America's hottest image
makers. He's in demand to imbue
products even celebrities with
"street cred" and counterculture
Cartoon (born Mark Machado, but call
him that at your risk), 39, readily
admits he perfected his craft
practicing public defacement as an
outlaw tagger. He's a big shot in
low rider circles the artist has
11 prize-worthy customized show
cars. His ability to create visuals
encompassing Chicano gang and low
rider culture, '70s New York
graffiti and Japanimation has made
Cartoon a sought-after tattoo
artist, car customizer, illustrator
and fashion designer.
"It's definitely a rush seeing your
art on a billboard," Cartoon said.
"Working with design agencies,
designing concept cars it's a long
way from my dad telling me to get a
Cartoon's graphic designs,
illustrations and artwork have also
been used to add visual punch to a
crazy quilt of pop cultural
He rendered the gang scrawl seen
throughout the bestselling video
game "Grand Theft Auto: San
Andreas." He designed clothing for
companies including Levi Strauss,
Stussy, Vans and Supreme. He
designed a customized T-Mobile
Sidekick. He did detail work for a
concept car for Scion. In 2005, Nike
hired Cartoon to create limited
editions of its Air Force 1 and
"The mainstream is coming around to
his aesthetic, not the other way
around," said movie producer Brian
Grazer, who is planning a film based
on Cartoon's life. "He doesn't
change. He's still hard-core. He's a
gatekeeper to that world."
Aaron Rose, an authority on
underground art and co-director of
the street art documentary
"Beautiful Losers," has showcased
Cartoon's creations in three
exhibitions. He said the artist's
identification with the corporate
establishment has helped distinguish
him from the scrum of street artists
trying to go legit.
"The corporate apparel brands
embracing him and promoting his work
was a big step in rising out of the
underground," Rose said. "Nike is a
big stage. Suddenly he's got 5
million more fans. It gave Cartoon
cult celebrity status."
Mister Cartoon grew up in San Pedro,
the son of working-class parents who
operated a printing shop. As a
youngster, he fell in with a crowd
he describes as "knuckleheads and
sickos," but he stops just short of
admitting gang membership.
"I have been affected by gang
culture up close and personally from
a young age," Cartoon said. "My
parents would go to work and I'd run
the streets. I could have been
locked up or killed."
When he was a teen, his style was
heavily influenced by the abstract,
brightly colored graffiti usually
letters found on New York subways.
When he was 17, authorities charged
him with $30,000 worth of vandalism.
The artist who augmented his
tagger alias Cartoon with "Mister"
in a bid to be seen as grown up
was prosecuted as a minor. He
avoided going to juvenile hall by
He says he was put on probation and
fined $3,000 in that era, juvenile
graffiti vandals were responsible
for repaying one-tenth of the
damages they caused. Cartoon said he
paid the sum almost immediately by
accepting one of his earliest
commissions: a mural for a boxing
"I used graffiti to pay my graffiti
debt," Cartoon said, chuckling.
But within months, the tagging
lifestyle had lost its allure for
Through a fluke, a photographer for
Car and Driver magazine asked him to
make a gang-graffiti backdrop for a
photo shoot, resulting in Cartoon's
first portfolio-worthy tear sheet.
"Some guy pulled up to San Pedro
High School and said, 'Hey, who's
the best graffiti artist in school?
I've got a job for him doing a
magazine cover,' " Cartoon recalled.
Obsessed with car culture, he began
airbrushing T-shirts at custom car
shows and gradually picked up
pointers on painting murals on car
doors and hoods. At age 20, he
landed a job as an illustrator at
Hustler magazine and soon parlayed
his work doing ribald cartoons there
into a sideline designing album
covers for Southland hip-hop
At a record release party in 1992,
he met Estevan Oriol, manager of the
stoner rap trio Cypress Hill. They
became friends around the time
Cartoon was getting a lot of
tattoos. Oriol convinced Cartoon
that tattoo art would be a natural
progression from the kind of art he
already was doing. The manager hired
Cartoon to create an album cover for
Cypress Hill and brought him on tour
with the hard-partying group.
"I let him sketch on me," Oriol
said. "I showed the guys from
Cypress Hill and made them get
tattoos. When we'd go on tour with
Goodie Mob or OutKast, I'd say, 'Get
tattooed by my boy.' "
The tattoo that finally earned him a
reputation, though, was created for
Eminem. In 1999, less than five
years after his maiden efforts with
a homemade tattoo gun, Cartoon
rendered a city scene on the rap
superstar's upper left arm. Thanks
to Eminem's towering cultural
presence at that time, Cartoon's
business achieved a critical mass.
He hit the mainstream.
Cartoon has since etched his stark
black designs (working in the style
of prison tattoo artists, he never
uses colored ink) onto a Who's Who
of pop stars and pro basketball
players, including Utah Jazz forward
Carlos Boozer. His minimum fee is
$1,000 per session. ("If you have to
ask the price, you can't afford it,"
Cartoon likes to say.) Although he
refuses to be pinned down on the
dollar amount, a large-scale tattoo
like the "50" that he inked over
most of rapper 50 Cent's back and
shoulders reportedly costs about
It was in 2002 while shooting the
movie "8 Mile," recalled Grazer,
Imagine Entertainment co-chief, that
he heard about Cartoon from Eminem.
He traveled to the artist's studio
and, on the basis of a strong first
impression, Grazer signed a deal to
produce the artist's biopic,
tentatively titled "Ink." He also
hired Cartoon to executive-produce
another Imagine feature, "Low
"He had this giant underground
following," Grazer said. "I like his
tattoo stuff, the car stuff, his
detailing. He's original and smart.
His story is interesting."
Nike, however, balked when Cartoon
proposed designing collections for
the company in 2004. "It took a year
to convince Nike. Proposals. Meeting
after meeting. 'Cartoon? He's a
tattoo guy. What does he know about
fashion?' " he recalled hearing from
Nike representatives. "I didn't take
it as an insult. I was just working.
Multitasking. I thought: 'Don't put
all your eggs in one basket.' "
The artist persisted, and now his
limited-edition sneakers a model
he designed in collaboration with
Lance Armstrong is due out in July
regularly sell for hundreds of
dollars above suggested retail.
Nike says it now counts Cartoon's
limited-edition redesigns of its Air
Force 1 sneakers (such as the model
he emblazoned with a skeleton,
spider webs and "L.A.") among "the
most coveted releases in our
In keeping with his image as a hero
to the low rider set, Cartoon drove
his heavily customized '64 Chevy
Impala from skid row to the Sunset
Strip for the unveiling of the "Fast
& Furious" billboard late last
Once there, the artist hit switches
to make the car's front end bounce
up and down on hydraulic springs
before photographers, reporters and
cameramen assembled for the event.
Michael Moses, executive vice
president of Universal Pictures'
marketing and publicity, said the
studio hired Cartoon whom he
described as "the foremost graffiti
artist of our city" to create the
billboard in an effort to reconnect
the "Fast & Furious" franchise with
its street culture origins.
The studio gave Cartoon an unusual
degree of independence to depict key
scenes and vehicles from the movie,
personalized with his signature
visuals: There were mucho macho
muscle cars, an idealized femme
fatale, a Mexican Dia de Los Muertos
skeleton and the movie's name
emblazoned in gothic gangster font.
Neither the artist nor the studio
would comment on the price tag for
the mural. Local graffiti artists
Revok and Toomer assisted Cartoon in
The billboard is Cartoon's second
movie assignment. He established his
film publicity bona fides last year
with a poster featuring Al Pacino
and Robert De Niro in the crime
drama "Righteous Kill" an image
reminiscent of faded newsprint, a
wanted poster and a graffiti
"He's real. His whole group is,"
said Peter Adee, president of
marketing and distribution for
Overture Films, who picked Cartoon
to design the "Righteous Kill"
poster and Oriol to photograph it.
"They're into trying to get to an
idea that's as commercial as
possible without selling out. They
do mass production of images, but at
the same time it's not
homogenization. They stay true to
their art and roots."
Mister Cartoon, a married father of
four, traces most of his personal
and professional success to the
awakening he experienced in 1997
when he made the decision to give up
drinking and other "mind-altering
substances" he favored after years
of touring with Cypress Hill. A
friend from the tattoo world, Baby
Ray, helped Cartoon improve his
tattooing technique but also
provided a dose of tough love and
"I don't expect a trophy or a cookie
or a pat on the back," Cartoon said.
"I made a decision to change my life
and help my family."
That decision resulted in the
clarity to pursue his ambitions. But
to hear the artist tell it, making
good on those plans is also a matter
of following the rules.
"Am I gifted or especially
talented?" Cartoon said. "No. I got
all this through hard work. Through
respecting my old man. From taking
direction from people. From painting
when everyone else was asleep. I
just found something I really love
and practiced at it my whole life."