NKED: Where were you born?
CARTOON: I was born in downtown L.A., but I grew up in the harbor area down by the docks. I’m grateful because not many people who grow up there get into this business. If you grow up in San Pedro, the two biggest things you can be are a dope dealer or a longshoreman. What were you like as a teenager?
I was trying to find out where I fit in. I knew I was an artist, but I wanted to roll with the in-crowd. The artist part of me made me a leader and creative. The other part of me wanted to fit in and wanted to hang around with the knuckleheads and tough guys. It brought me a lot of madness in my life. As I got older, I started to realize that seeing my friends go to prison and get murdered wasn’t my future. A lot of those guys were harder than me, and they were getting killed or serving long sentences. I had my artwork to fall back on, and my friends didn’t. And you can’t just say, Time out—I don’t want to play no more. Let’s forget that beef.
How did you turn it around?
I came to the decision that I loved lowrider cars and I wanted to be around that scene. It was a similar scene, since most of those guys are retired gang members. When I was at car shows, I was around all those tattoos. Black and gray clowns, Old English writing on the neck, rockers on the stomach. This was in the ’80s, and everyone I knew was sleeved out. Southern California has always been like that. Nobody had color tattoos.
Why is that?
I think because most of them are done on the street out here. Guys ain’t got no credit cards to go to the tattoo Web site or the tattoo supply and order shit. But you can get a hold of some black Pelikan, you know? Just hit the art store. You took ink and water, and black and gray was born. Color tattoos are done in professional shops. Lowrider tattoos were born in garages and alleyways and kitchens and prison cells. What was your first tattoo?
My name, Cartoon. I didn’t get tattooed until later in life in my early twenties because all the homeboys I saw getting tattooed were getting it done on the street. Shit was a little crooked, and the lines were blown out. The guys that had the best work got them done up north in prison. I wasn’t trying to go to that tattoo shop.
Before tattooing, you designed album artwork.
When I was 15, I got the cover of Hot Rod and Car and Driver magazines. I would do a mural in the back behind the car. So I already had published artwork, and I was still in high school. When I got out, I did an NWA cover and covers for Eazy-E and other rap groups. I was designing logos. Then I started doing murals on lowriders, and that really changed a lot of my stuff because I went from a graffiti writer to a mural artist. It was this lost art. I wanted to do that the rest of my life. I thought tattooing was a step down.
Why was tattooing a step down?
Most of the tattooists I knew were doing it out of their pad. I didn’t know any professional tattoo artists until I
got introduced to Charlie Roberts and went by his shop. I had heard of Jack Rudy, but he was this mythical superhero tattooer. He wasn’t attainable to me. How could a kid like me meet him? He owned Good Time Charlie’s and was the biggest name in tattooing. His tattoos looked like airbrushed portraits. It wasn’t the crude and hand-poked stuff like I had seen. The women had huge eyes and hair to their ankles, and there were clowns and smoke intertwining through a chain-link fence behind a gangster homie with a beanie on and the handlebar mustache that looked like a push broom. Everything was exaggerated and crazy.
How did you make your transition into tattooing?
I had been practicing on the homies with a homemade machine. My friend Estevan [Oriol] made one. Then I tried to figure that shit out in the tattoo shop with a tattoo machine, and that shit was so heavy. Gill Montie, owner of Tattoo Mania, was faded one time and told me to tattoo his foot. He handed me the machine, and I drew a skull on top of his foot, and I could barely hold the machine up. The whole time I’m tattooing him, he was yelling, “Argh! Don’t let this guy tattoo you! Oh my God!” It was making me fucking nervous. I was tattooing the owner of the shop, and I could barely even hold the machine. Was that your official start?
I hooked up with this guy Tattoo Tony from San Fernando. I learned a lot off of him. I tattooed with Tony for a couple of years and got a better grip on tattooing. But the whole time I was partying, drinking, and smoking. It got to a point where I was touring with Cypress Hill and had to change. When B Real tells you that you gotta slow down, it’s time to look in the mirror, baby.
Did his talk with you work?
I thought maybe I should slow down. Baby Ray, a tattooist who I looked up to and respected, and Mark Mahoney both had an hour conversation with me basically telling me, “You deserve a first-class life and to become a real tattooer, but you’re bullshitting. You’re barely surviving. You’re fucking loaded 24 hours a day. How are you going to learn this art?” It made sense. Baby Ray said, “If you make the decision to change your life, take direction from me, and sober up, I’ll teach you the real art of tattooing.” I said I’d do it. We ended up moving to Spotlight Tattoo under Bob Roberts, and I worked there for three years.
Was it surreal to then work with Bob Roberts, whom you admired?
Oh, yeah. I used to hang out at the shop and just be around that shit. So then to work there and even have a business card that said Spotlight Tattoo on it was a huge honor. At that same time, Estevan was traveling and going to all these concerts with Cypress Hill since he was tourmanaging them. He was my walking portfolio. He’d walk up to other artists and say, “When you come to L.A., you got to come see Cartoon so he can hook you up.” We used to look for them at their hotels and pick them up and bring them to the shop. Next thing you know, I was tattooing Redman, Method Man, Pharrell Williams. When Eminem walked in, it was the turning point for my career. What was the first tattoo you did for Eminem?
I did the mushroom with the skull in it and the buildings in the background with some writing. After that, I did his daughter’s portrait. I didn’t know at that point that every magazine he was on would come to me and ask about his tattoos. When I did 50 Cent’s back, I no longer needed a portfolio. I could just tell people I did 50′s back. It was the first time you saw a rapper with a full backpiece.
Mena Suvari went big with her piece.
Yeah. Fuck. A big lion like that. She loves reggae music and wanted to do kind of a dedication to that. She’s done
a couple more since. She don’t play. For a petitie woman like that and a big actress, she’s got a lot of heart. We get a lot of guys who are like, I’m an actor and I don’t want to get tattooed. Shut up. That’s like saying, My mom doesn’t want me to get tattooed. No shit. Nobody’s mom wants them to get tattoos! Is it hard to balance the celebrity clients with the regular clients?
If I just waited for celebrities to walk through the door, I’d be tattooing at the indoor swap meet or something. My business survives off of hard-working, blue-collar characters who want something good. But celebrities get me free press. It gets me a regular guy who wants to go where DJ Premier got his tattoos.
How do you view tattoo TV shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink?
I look at it as a positive. I turned them down when they came to me because it didn’t fit me. I think it fits Kat Von D. She’s a woman. She’s sexy. She can do that shit. I think tattooing is a very small community, and the other 95 percent of the world have never even seen a tattoo being done start to finish. Also, I’m the guy with no sign or nothing, but I have deals with people like T-Mobile and Nike. I’m a go-getter. It makes it easier to pitch Coca-Cola about tattooing when they’ve seen it on TV . It’s not seen as this low-down, dirty, dope-scene, stripper, scumbag, biker, prison shit. That’s their image of tattooing.
You and Estevan recently opened Last Laugh, a retail store in L.A. What is the shop all about?
Last Laugh is an apparel store, and we sell 1930s pedal cards for kids. We buy them at swap meets, slam them to the floor, and give them candy paint. We have it set up so I can tattoo at the store. My other tattoo studio is private. There’s no phone. No sign. But if you’re timing is right, you might catch me tattooing at the store. I’m fired up about it. Did you ever think tattooing would take you this far?
If you had told me when I was a kid that this shit would be going down, I would have argued with you. If you had told me to write my future down on a piece of paper, I would have sold myself short. I got to give to God for a lot of this shit. ‘Cause if you leave it to me, I’ll fuck it all up.