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 & Furious."
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 cool.
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 lowrider circles -- the artist has 11 prize-worthy customized show cars. His ability to create visuals encompassing Chicano gang and lowrider 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 real job."
Cartoon's graphic designs, illustrations and artwork have also been used to add visual punch to a crazy quilt of pop cultural offerings:
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 Cortez shoes.
"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 pleading guilty.
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 gym.
"I used graffiti to pay my graffiti debt," Cartoon said, chuckling.
But within months, the tagging lifestyle had lost its allure for the artist.
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 artists.
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 $20,000.
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, "Lowrider."
"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 history."
In keeping with his image as a hero to the lowrider 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 month.
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 painting it.
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 stencil.
"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 spiritual guidance.
"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."
See a photo gallery of Mister Cartoon and some of his work.