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Tattooist to the Stars

In a Hip-Hop World Where Street Cred Is Everything, L.A.'s Mark 'Mister Cartoon' Machado Has Made a Mark of a Different Kind

November 02, 2003|Melba Newsome | Melba Newsome's last wrote for the magazine about California's rape laws.

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."

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