The Gospel According to MISTER CARTOON
Written by Caroline Ryder
Painting hellfire and horny Messiahs, the tattoo, lowrider and graffiti artist known as Mister Cartoon transmutes the lead bullets of Chicano L.A. into gold, in an alchemy fueled by cholo church eulogies for friends who’ve gone to their graves with nothing but the holy marks of his tattooist’s gun.
“It’s bizarre when they die,” says Cartoon, thinking of his clients who have passed away, and the Cartoon art they took underground. “They say you can’t take anything to the grave, but you do take your tattoos in the box with you.”
Imagining his entire body of work eaten by worms sparked a panic in Cartoon, an urge for legacy that inspired a whole new body of work on canvas and sheet metal — media that he hopes will stand a better chance of survival, affording him a longevity he only just realized he craved. This work, he says, is his future as well as his history, a collection of all the themes we’ve come to associate with him: “The beautiful women, the rose petals, the teardrops; also the tunnels, the homelessness, the fucking writing on the wall, the garbage, the fucking feces on the ground, the porta-potties, the shanty homeless city. The shit I trip on at 3 in the morning.” The works connect the dots of his personal stories of the last 35 years: stories of prison, of gang life, of Hollywood fame, of botanicas where Virgin Mary candles flicker — angels and demons imprinted on his psyche since he was a boy.
Cartoon was born Mark Machado in 1969, to middle-class Mexican-American parents, and grew up in the Harbor area, south of Los Angeles. His mom and dad encouraged their son’s interest in the arts, taking him to see art-house movies, introducing him to disco and psychedelic rock. His family noticed his artistic talent, but they weren’t quite ready for how he planned to use it. Like the time, aged 10, he got in trouble with the nuns at his Catholic school for his drawing of Jesus naked on the cross, after he’d heard a story about the Romans stripping Jesus of his loin cloth. “I thought ‘If you’re God, and you’ve got a son, and he’s the ruler of the universe, he must be hung like a horse, right?’ I was this innocent little boy; I don’t even think I’d seen a grown man’s weenie, but I figured Jesus must have a super big dick. I mean, if he doesn’t then I’m not sure if I’m a believer anymore.”
The nuns, concerned, called his father in to discuss the drawing. “I just remember seeing his feet walking toward me, and he had his blue Dickies on, and his work shoes. I knew if my old man had to leave work for this, it wasn’t good. He says to me, ‘Son, why did you draw this?’ I go, ‘It’s in the Bible, Dad.’ My old man dropped to one knee and goes, ‘Hey, son, you ain’t got nothing to be embarrassed about. You didn’t do nothing wrong. Actually it was a nice detail there. Maybe too much detail.’ And he looked at the nuns and says, ‘Hey, don’t bother me with this shit again.’”
When Cartoon was 12, his father gave him his first job, designing for a client at the print shop he ran. Cartoon did so well that his father began regularly calling on him to help him design restaurant menus, logos, whatever his customers needed. This would be the first and only “job” Cartoon ever had.
His deeply religious family attributed his artistic talent to God, but Cartoon wasn’t so sure. His conflicted feelings about God — a fascination with religious iconography enmeshed with a disdain for religiosity itself — can be traced throughout Cartoon’s oeuvre. Today, he considers himself a recovering Catholic/atheist, one of the few Godless homies in his community, according to him. “I’m the first atheist in my family,” he says, pointing out that his questions about Catholicism and faith in general pre-dated even the infamous Jesus drawing. “They started hacking away at my genitalia when I was a little baby, and they didn’t even ask me,” he points out. “I think I might’ve lost like a fucking quarter-inch in that whole situation. I definitely know I lost some sensitivity.”
As a teenager in the late ’80s, he started going to lowrider shows. He saw guys there airbrushing T-shirts, without much style or finesse, and figured he could do better, even though he’d never picked up an airbrush before. He practiced long enough to develop his style, airbrushing his own clothes, which evolved into ironing Old English letters onto hoodies and selling them. Blending New York graffiti flavor with the L.A. cholo penitentiary fine-line tattoo aesthetic, Cartoon was well on his way to developing the unique style that would make him famous.
He was still going to church in those days — “lowrider cholo church,” run by pastors who had been to prison. “It’s a very Chicano Mexican-American thing to do,” says Cartoon. “These pastors are gangstered up, full sleeves, and they’re positively talking about the Lord, how he’s changed their lives. These guys have the gift of gab, and their testimonies are outrageous.” But his churchgoing days came to an end when he found faith in something else — partying. “Coming up, you try coke, acid, mushrooms, methamphetamine — you just try it all. Fuck it. When you’re 20, that’s what you’re supposed to do. I had a lot of fun on all that shit. It was just no fun when I ran out. Running out of cocaine is not fun.”
He found himself immersed in the L.A. rap scene and made album covers for N.W.A’s Eazy-E, meeting his longtime business partner, photographer Estevan Oriol, at a record-release party for one of Eazy’s groups. Oriol was tour-managing Cypress Hill, the first of many platinum-record holders he would tattoo. From there, Cartoon ended up a favorite among the biggest rappers, actors and rock stars in the world, from Method Man to Snoop Dogg to Dre to Christina Aguilera and Eminem, giving Slim Shady a now-famous tattoo of his daughter, Hailie Jade. That tattoo captured the attention of media around the world, and soon Cartoon was in high demand.
He built a thriving career: teaming up with Oriol to co-found Joker Brand clothing, designing logos for some of the biggest brands in the world and tattooing everybody who was anybody. But the bigger his business grew, the crazier the partying got, and things came to a head when he destroyed a hotel room in Tokyo after smoking some strong Japanese drugs. “That turned into a four- or five-day mistake,” recalls Cartoon. “I started drawing all over the walls; it was nuts. That was kind of a real turning point for me. I never partied after that.”
Cartoon found refuge in AA, his longest stretch of sobriety lasting 13 years. He liked the structure, the fellowship, but there was that guy again — God, lurking around every corner. “It just was killing me, man. By about year 10 it was really hard for me to hear people saying that God saved them in the motel while they were shooting coke in their balls or some shit.” He found some Agnostics Anonymous meetings, and God was off the table for good. Well, almost.
The Gothic splendor of the Duomo di Milano, a cathedral in Milan that took six centuries to complete, made him wonder, for a second, if there might be something in this religion business. Standing there with Oriol, gazing upon the church’s myriad pinnacles and spires, Cartoon detected thoughts of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit drifting through his mind.
“No doubt about it — I felt the presence of God,” says Cartoon. “Maybe it was the statues that gave me the willies, you know? But I walked in and I was dwarfed. I really felt like a piece of shit, that I’m nothing, that I can’t even refer to myself as an artist. I’m a fucking nothing, writing my name on the bathroom wall is what I am.” The intricately hewn marble sculptures of angels and demons seemed to be carved by something . . . celestial. Or as he puts it: “Even if you have a team of 10 geniuses in the circle, how the fuck do they figure out how to carve that marble? They must have really believed they were doing it for God, you know?” Five minutes later he returned to his conclusion that religion was still “all bullshit. But the Duomo did bring another level of respect, as far as appreciating my family’s culture.”
These days, Cartoon keeps his fingers in many pies — the graffiti pie, the lowrider pie, the fashion pie, the tattoo pie, the fine-art pie. When we speak, he’s working on a painting of Hell. Perhaps that’s where he’ll get to see some of his lost work; Hell’s where all the cool people wind up, in his opinion. Not to mention “all the scientists are down in Hell — so we got some good AC.”
Images shown (from top to bottom):
California meets Japan, 1999 Photo by Estevan Oriol.
Squeegee Window Cleaning Business Card Circa Mid-1980s.
PRAY FOR US, Spray & Enamel Paint on Canvas 2008, 36" × 48".
Skid Row Ice Cream, Acrylic enamel and lacquer candy paint on metal, 1996 Photo by Estevan Oriol.
L.A. Wall, Downtown Los Angeles, Circa 2001.