The Illustrious Mister Cartoon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because getting on a first-name basis with Mister Cartoon before he goes all Banksy and ubiquitous is a damned clever culture move.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Mark Machado knew a few things about a few things before the rest of us knew much about anything. He knew when he was eight years old that he wanted to be an artist. Not a scribbler: an ARTIST. Yes, all caps.
Who’s making the pilgrimage to his L.A. Skid Row shop? 50 Cent, Beyoncé and a raft of pro athletes, in addition to Madison Avenue. Sitting at his mother’s kitchen table, knuckle deep in a style he would later call L.A. art (photo-realistic, fine-line stuff using lots of black and lots of gray), validation found him fast, and it came in the way that usually gets most of us paying attention: a paying job. Machado was 12 then and already getting paid to make art for his neighbors. Absolutely, promisingly, Promethean.
Today his art reaches far past the neighborhood. His murals have been seen on Sunset Boulevard and other prime L.A. real estate, his style rolls down the street on custom-painted cars and his tattoos illustrate the bodies of famous and infamous alike. Musicians come to him for cover art and music video backdrops, and clothing giants want his stamp on their products. Just last month, the New York Post tried to soak up some of his signature L.A. cool by riding along on his insider’s tour of downtown.
Moreover, “he’s changed the tattoo world,” says Jean-Luc Navette, French tattoo aristocracy in his own right, from his shop in Lyon. ”People always copy his work, and he’s still the best in the black and gray, what we call Latin style of tattooing. Not anyone better.”
But if you want to understand Cartoon, you need to understand how he sees himself: not as a barrio exception but as the tip of a much larger iceberg that is where he comes from and what that place has to offer. His graffiti and tattoos power a piece of the L.A. dream machine that you may not have seen but you nonetheless recognize. And while there’s no doubt that Cartoon is an icon of superaccessible street culture, he’s got no need to pimp said culture. Not with Nike, Toyota and T-Mobile on his dance card. Moreover, the will and drive that’s fueled Cartoon’s ascendence is not uncommon in the barrio. What sets Cartoon apart is the same thing that sets strivers apart anywhere you find them: He just won’t quit.
Put another way, Cartoon’s path is much closer to what his tattoo client and spiritual compatriot Dr. Dre once said: “We don’t just say no, we’re too busy saying yeah.” So, in 2011, when Nike asked Cartoon for a small design, he encouraged them to think bigger and to think bigger with him at the helm. Nike bit.
He goes from one portion of a campaign to the whole campaign, and now our boy is out of the parlor and into the boardroom. And so flows Toyota and T-Mobile and, all the while, on Street Cred Street a white rapper named Eminem starts singing his praises — and the fire is lit.
Which then starts the pilgrimage to his L.A. Skid Row Tattoo shop. In the door come 50 Cent, Beyoncé and a raft of pro athletes, in addition to Madison Avenue. Add to this the clothing line and the car show circuit tie-in with Diesel, and the latticework of cool start to make your head spin.
If this was just a story about a cat who made it, that would be one thing, but this is not just that. This is not just about pretty pictures and vaguely interesting cultural artifacts adorning lunch wagons and other curios. This is about making the most creative choices enough times that all the world can see: Sometimes it’s really not luck.
Note: Mister Cartoon sees folks by appointment only and can be reached at (213) 488-0313.