The S.A. Studios is dropped in among a discount luggage store, a storage rental and a canned-goods manufacturer in an artsy industrial warehouse district on the edge of Little Tokyo. There are no signs out front, but a pearl white Cadillac Escalade with massive rims is parked outside. Must be the place.
The work studio is a small, cramped space decorated with album covers, photos of rap stars sporting body art, Mexican folk art and a picture of Frida Kahlo. The central piece of furniture is an ice-blue barber's chair where a San Pedro native now known as Mister Cartoon practices his craft. He is short and compact with a prominent forehead and hooded eyes. Dressed in oversized pants, denim shirt and expensive sneakers and sporting a bald head, he looks like a gangbanger straight out of central casting. He is, in fact, 33-year-old Mark Machado, but no one calls him that.
"If [we] had a tattoo sign out front, everyone would come in knocking and want to window shop," he says with a shrug. "We just stay low-pro."
Three years ago, this place didn't even exist. Now Mister Cartoon, the bona fide tattooist to the stars of the hip-hop music world, doesn't need a sign. That's because to say that he does tattoos is like saying Annie Leibovitz takes pictures. He creates art with an electric tattoo machine on a canvas of human skin. He is the Manolo Blahnik of tattoos--hot, in demand and wickedly overpriced. Mister Cartoon tattoos three days a week by appointment only and, primarily, only for clients who are referred. Some are celebrities, but the Escalade out front? It's his.
If you've seen a music video, purchased a rap or hip-hop CD or flipped through a music magazine in the last three years, you've probably seen Mister Cartoon's work. His ink-on-skin portraits have become a sought-after status symbol among entertainers of a certain stripe. One of his portfolios is filled with photos of his best-known clients--Eminem, Method Man, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre and Justin Timberlake--all sporting his finely crafted black-and-gray scenes on their arms, legs, backs, shoulders and, particularly among female clients, a few less public places.
The Source, "the magazine of hip-hop music, culture & politics," has dubbed Mister Cartoon "hip-hop's official tattoo artist." His reputation is such that when 16-year-old rap star Bow Wow was ready for a clown face on his left shoulder, he sought out the man Jet magazine says "has tattooed everybody who is anybody in the entertainment industry."
What's more, Mister Cartoon and his business partner, Estevan "Scandalous" Oriol, a photographer and music video director, have built a small but multifaceted business that includes tattoo art, magazine illustrations, album covers, automotive art and backdrops for music videos and TV shows. They've also created Joker, a lowrider-inspired line of clothing, jewelry and leather goods. In doing so, they've transformed themselves into that rarest of things: successful businessmen with street credibility.
While the social stigma hasn't entirely disappeared, tattoos are as common today on college campuses and in malls as they are in biker bars and prison yards. And unlike many other fashion fads, the tattoo trend just keeps growing. (U.S. News & World Report, for example, recently described tattoo parlors as one of the fastest-growing retail businesses in the country. Tattoos have become a thread that connects many forms of popular contemporary art, from music and films to literature and fashion, thanks to the growing and diverse number of celebrities and professional athletes who wear them.
Tattoos have transcended the old demographic boundaries and given people as diverse as pop singers Christina Aguilera and Pink, actress Melanie Griffith and Laker center Shaquille O'Neal something in common with the young woman and her friend who now stumble into S.A. Studios looking rushed and harried. The client, a tall, slender young woman with short dark hair, looks as strait-laced as they come.
"Sorry I'm late," she says. "Traffic was bad coming from the Valley."
"No problem," Mister Cartoon says, a seemingly stock response for every situation. He hands the woman two books of photos and turns his attention back to his cell phone conversation.
You can't swing a bat in L.A. without hitting a tattoo parlor, but Mister Cartoon's newest client waited a week for an appointment and was willing to shell out $150--several times the average cost of a tattoo--to be needled by the tattooist to the stars. After 30 minutes of studying the photos, she makes her decision: just two small J's, her initials, on her upper right arm. She might as well have asked Vera Wang to design her high school prom dress. But . . . no problem.
"OK," says Mister Cartoon. "Let's do it."
The woman slides into the barber's chair and pushes up her sleeve. Her eyes follow Mr. Cartoon's hand as he draws the pattern with a marker. She turns her head when he picks up the tattoo machine, which has a needle coated with permanent ink. An electric motor pushes the needle in and out of the skin at a rate of up to 3,000 punctures per minute. With each puncture, the tattoo needle injects a small drop of ink about an eighth of an inch below the surface of the skin.
Mister Cartoon has adapted a tattooing style that began in California prisons. With no access to colored ink, inmates watered down black ink to create shadows and depth. The adoption of Old English lettering came to symbolize authority and credibility in Chicano street life. Popularized in the '70s, this method of fine-line black-and-gray tattooing now reflects the historic street culture of L.A.
Mister Cartoon's designs generally feature pretty women and good-looking men, as well as angels, skulls and crossbones. Compared to others, his tattoos seem to have an extra dimension. The details are vivid, the textures finely drawn. "If you're going to have to wear that stuff for the rest of your life, it might as well, you know, be the ultimate image," he told an interviewer from National Public Radio.
He refuses to discuss what some of his big-name customers pay for his body art. He flippantly told the NPR reporter that he could get $20,000 for a tattoo, and that figure has dogged him ever since, probably because he won't confirm or deny it. He does admit that he charges whatever he can get away with. "I charge anywhere from $100 up as far as your imagination and your pocketbook will stretch. Once in a while people go in there, want a Ferrari, and they only have enough for a Camry."
Getting to the point where he could ask for those prices with a straight face wasn't easy. "That's how people look at it, 'You're so lucky,' " he says. "Yeah, right. It's an overnight success--and it only took 20 years."
Mister Cartoon was an accomplished graffiti artist and low-level troublemaker as a young adult, but his focus changed from street art to studio art in the early '90s when he met Eazy-E, founder of the seminal rap group NWA. "One day I just hit him up. 'Whaz up? I'm ready to work' And he goes, 'Give me a call tomorrow' and he started giving me work after that."
Mister Cartoon drew portraits and helped design album covers for Eazy-E and other rap and hip-hop groups. It was his first foray into the music world and his first inkling that he could make money legitimately without selling out. He once traveled with Eazy to a rap convention in Atlanta. Bowled over by the scene, which included limos, top-drawer hotels, VIP treatment and high-rollers driving lowriders, he embraced the hip-hop lifestyle.
Mister Cartoon and Oriol were little more than hip-hop hangers-on when they met one another at a record-release party. They hit it off, and over time they put together their plan to market gangsta-style clothes that reflected Mexican street life. "We were doing [urban street clothing] 10 years before Sean Jean, Rocawear and any of those," says Mister Cartoon. "We made it up as we moved along."
The first venture fell apart, they say, when a store owner with whom they were doing business stole their ideas. It was the first in a string of missteps. "Young guys from the street, not too educated, we ran ourselves into a couple of brick walls," says Oriol. "We took the company through a couple of wrong turns and ended up with the wrong people backing us up."
Their fortunes began to change in the mid-1990s when Mister Cartoon began hanging out at Spotlight, a well-known tattoo shop on Melrose Avenue. He began tattooing himself and friends using a homemade machine. As his technique improved, Mister Cartoon started doing tattoos for members of the pop/rap band Cypress Hill. Soon his work was on tour nationally.
"He was just a such a promising artist but nobody wanted to give him a chance because they considered him a threat to their business," says Baby Ray, who mentored the young tattoo artist at Spotlight. "I considered him an asset, so I helped him along. I knew that he would be a good tattooer if shown properly."
It was only after Mister Cartoon inked a foul-mouthed white rapper in 1999 that things really took off. He gave Eminem his first major tattoo that year--a city scene covering much of the rapper's upper left arm. Since then, Eminem's body has become Mister Cartoon's Sistine Chapel. He created the R.I.P. for the rapper's uncle on his left shoulder, and on his right shoulder he inked a portrait of the rapper's daughter with the words "Bonnie and Clyde."
"It changed his image, hardened his image. It gave him an edge, man," says Mister Cartoon. "His rapping's ridiculous, the hard core of the hard core. He was a pretty boy and we had to ugly him up a little bit--make him ugly like us."
"When these rap cats want a certain look, when they want a certain stage presence or thug look, we know how to put it on them and put it on them clean," says Baby Ray of Spotlight. "Cartoon does good work in the style that [rappers] crave . . . . It's the quality that makes it stand out, and we actually live the life that we tattoo." He adds: "Cartoon has done me proud, and he doesn't forget where he came from."
Eminem's body, a living billboard for Mister Cartoon's work, was seen by millions of people on CDs, magazine covers and music videos. More importantly, it was seen by other entertainers, and thus began the seemingly endless string of celebrity pilgrims to tiny S.A. Studios.
Yet Mister Cartoon estimates that tattoos now account for only about one-eighth of S.A. Studios' revenues. In diversifying, he has painted nude women on Larry Flynt's limousine and a portrait of Oscar De La Hoya as a young fighter on the boxer's Chevy truck. For Joe Ray, former president of the Lifestyle Car Club (for lowriders) in East L.A., Mister Cartoon and Oriol decked out his 1979 Lincoln Continental "Las Vegas" with murals of the strip.
Joker, their clothing, jewelry and leather-goods business, now has 13 employees and operates out of the first and second floors of a warehouse space near Little Tokyo. Last year, revenues reached $1.5 million. It's a small amount compared to the better-known lines, but it's also a small operation kicked off with little more than hope.
"Those companies started with millions and we started in our garage," says Mister Cartoon. "It's a miracle we're still here."
"Most people really trip out because the first impression is that they're gangbangers," says Juan Alvarez, a Joker clothing designer. "These cats bring the tattoo lifestyle and lowrider lifestyle to the clothing, and that makes everything official because that's how we grew up."
Mister Cartoon now lives in the Valley, works on his custom lowrider and prefers a movie and a quiet dinner to the club scene. He admits to using drugs during his "arrogant" high school years and at least two minor run-ins with the law that sent him to county jail. He credits his love of art with turning his life around. "The L.A. County Jail convinced me that it wasn't any place I wanted to be. I always had something to live for, a reason not to do really stupid, crazy [stuff]."
Mister Cartoon has one more client scheduled for the day, a promoter/producer from radio station KROQ who is getting his first tattoo. The promoter calls, full of apologies because he's tied up at work. He asks to reschedule his appointment for next week.
"No problem," Mister Cartoon says, seemingly relieved that he's not facing a three-hour project at the end of a day that still includes a party at a store in Montebello carrying the Joker brand.
He turns his attention back to J.J., the young woman in the chair. He works fast and flawlessly, then reflects on the personal journeys that both he and many of his clients take to S.A. Studios.
"Most people want a change. That's really what a tattoo does," says Mister Cartoon. "That's the hardest part about this game, figuring out [what people want]. Some people just know what they want, [but] when I gotta play the Psychic Friends Network and figure people out . . . . If you don't know what you're about, how am I supposed to know?
"Those are the same people who, when you ask, 'What do you want in life?' they say, 'I want money.' [But they] don't want a lot of pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents on them. [They] want what money brings you. You want freedom, happiness, relaxation, the power to give. If I got money, I ain't sweating my phone bills; I can kick back and be creative. I've got the best of both worlds. I got the dream life."
Mister Cartoon finishes the young woman's tattoo in less than 15 minutes. She studies it from every angle, looks at it in the mirror, shows it to her friend. She's smiling as she hands over the cash.