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More than skin deep

Special to the Times

At almost 9 on a recent Saturday night, the normally placid face of Mister Cartoon, tattoo artist, was showing signs of impatience. He’d been waiting all evening in his studio, on the edge of this gritty warehouse district behind Staples Center, for the arrival of a young rapper named Fate-Al, who was stuck somewhere between Las Vegas and downtown L.A.

Mister Cartoon was eager to finish his latest masterpiece--a bandoleer of rifle bullets that, when done, would stretch fully around Fate-Al’s chest and back. “Where is this dude?” Mister Cartoon, nee Machado (he won’t divulge his first name), said to no particular member of his entourage. “Well, you know how these rappers are.”

A friendly, pug-like 33-year-old from San Pedro, with a shaved head and the quiet demeanor of a monk, Cartoon does indeed know how these rappers are. He’s been burning images into their arms, backs, chests and necks for nearly a decade. But now the demand for his work is such that it’s usually he who makes people wait, no matter how big-name the client. Cartoon’s studio is unmarked and unlisted, and he likes it that way. He tattoos only three days a week and prefers to have a relationship with his clients before taking them on. Fate-Al, as yet an unknown, was lucky to get an appointment.

Cartoon is the tattoo artist to the hip-hop elite, ink-slinger to the stars. “He’s the best,” says Fate-Al’s manager. “Everybody wants a tat from ‘Toon.”

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And it’s not just rappers anymore. Justin Timberlake recently dropped in and got a flying cherub, with his mother’s initials and the word “Savior,” put on his back. The night before -- Cartoon rarely does tattoos during the day -- Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker had “Lover” tattooed on his stomach.

But it’s Cartoon’s work on rappers for which he’s best known. Eminem’s latest, a portrait of his daughter with the words “Bonnie and Clyde” on his right shoulder, was done here, as was Eminem’s first, a hallucinatory scene, on his left.

Method Man is a frequent client. Other clients include Outkast, Xzibit, Fat Joe and Beyonce Knowles from Destiny’s Child.

“He speaks his mind -- he’ll tell you if he doesn’t like your idea,” says B Real of the rap group Cypress Hill. “But if he does like it, he’ll take it to another level. He can visualize what you say to him.”

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“Beyonce may have been the hardest,” Cartoon says, “because she’s not only a woman but a diva, and not only a diva but 20 years old. And this was her first tattoo.” Knowles came into Cartoon’s studio with no idea what she wanted. After a long discussion, they decided on a small angel in prayer. Where is it? “Let’s put it this way,” says Cartoon, who describes himself as a recovering but spiritual Catholic. “Only the blessed will ever know.”

His favorite? “Probably the praying hands on the side of Travis’ nugget,” he says, referring to Barker’s head. “It just looks great when he’s driving that S500 Benz.” Because of clients like Barker, he says, “tattoos no longer mean that you’re a scumbag dope-fiend convict. You’re an entrepreneur, a designer rock star.”

Mister Cartoon grew up drawing. He found his first paying job at 12, illustrating menus for local restaurants. For his 16th birthday, he received an airbrush and took it to the Gardena swap meet, where he set up a T-shirt-painting booth. From there it was on to detailing jobs in the Southwest’s low-rider car circuit. He also grew up listening to hip-hop, but it wasn’t until he met NWA founder Eazy-E at a car show, and Eazy hired him to design album covers, that Cartoon realized his art could straddle both worlds.

Around the same time, he began hanging around in Hollywood tattoo parlors, outlining designs for the artists in exchange for tattoos. His first, a small scene on his left arm, depicts a clown with an AK-47 machine gun slung over his shoulder. Clowns abound in his work.

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“The clown represents good times and bad times, and how you need one for the other,” he says. Cartoon’s first big clients were members of the rap group Cypress Hill, with whom he is still close. “They went on tour in Lollapalooza, around the world, bragging on me,” he said. “You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”

But it isn’t publicity alone that has garnered Cartoon his following. Not just dizzyingly ornate, his work is artistically rigorous, exploiting perspective and multiple planes and light and shadow to unique effect. His line -- he works only with black and gray ink, a discipline known as fine-line -- has the precision of a printer’s, which stands to reason: His father, who taught him to draw, is a retired printer. He is also known as a patient guide. “I’m there to translate their ideas or their desires into an image,” he said. “I want to know what you like and then make it happen. I ask, ‘What about you will never change?’ ”

Cartoon’s work runs anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $20,000 for a full back piece. But it mystifies him when people try to haggle. “You’ll spend $50,000 on your car, but you’re trying to bargain with me on a tattoo? How do you put a price on emotion?”

That said, Cartoon is not averse to pushing his product. His Joker Brand clothing line brought in $2 million last year, and he has lines of temporary tattoos and custom jewelry.

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“People think if you’re a bald-headed Mexican driving an Escalade that you’re a drug dealer -- they can’t conceive that I’m a committed entrepreneur.” And his commitment to the name? “Even my old ladies call me Cartoon. But to tell you the truth, there’s a Cartoon in every neighborhood in L.A. I’m just the one with the credit card.”


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