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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Mister Cartoon: A profile in Section A on Saturday about Mister Cartoon, who went from being a graffiti vandal to sought-after tattoo artist, car customizer and illustrator, mistakenly identified his car as a 1964 Chevy Impala in the article and the photo caption. It is a 1962 Impala.
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.