Mister Cartoon's Growing Tattoo Empire
In the warehouse district just east of downtown Los Angeles, an artist is working on his latest masterpiece -- only for this artist, the paintbrush is an electric tattoo gun, and the canvas is human skin.
"He calls himself Mister Cartoon -- a name that certainly carries more star power than his given name, Mark Machado," says NPR's Michele Norris. "His richly detailed black and gray tattoos have become one of the most sought-after status symbols in the music world."
Mister Cartoon's art work graces the skin of some of the biggest names in music today. Eminem, Method Man, Travis Barker, the drummer from Blink 182, Justin Timberlake of N-Sync and Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child all wear his work.
Many of Mister Cartoon's unique designs are inspired by the crude tattoos inmates of California's prison system give each other behind bars. With no access to colored inks, prisoners use watered-down black ink to create shadows and depth -- a technique called "fine-line" tattooing.
"What sets (Mister Cartoon's) tattoos apart is the intricacy," says Norris. "Details so stunning they almost look like photographs -- textures so finely drawn they almost appear to be three-dimensional."
His signature style combines the "vicious and the vulnerable," such as a smiling clown holding a smoking gun. Mister Cartoon also uses a gothic lettering style called Old English -- in Chicano street culture, the typeface is a symbol of authority and credibility.
In his mid-20s, Mister Cartoon was a street-trained artist, painting murals and silk-screening. He learned how to tattoo from a friend, and when his technique improved he began working with the rap group Cypress Hill. But his fame exploded when a rap superstar walked into his studio.
"Cypress Hill got me started as far as my first big name -- Eminem put me over the top," he tells Norris. "That guy gets his daughter's portrait put on his arm... kind of a dedication to the greatest part of his life."
It was Eminem who gave Mister Cartoon the kind of publicity money can't buy. Eminem wears Machado's tattoos "like a badge of honor, showing them off with muscle shirts and flashing them on magazine covers," Norris says.
Mister Cartoon is expanding his small empire to include clothing, jewelry and leather goods under the Joker label -- and business is taking off. Still, it's the tattooing that really interests Mister Cartoon. "Watching him work as he maneuvers his tattoo gun, his body is hunched in tight concentration," says Norris. "But on his face, an expression of pure bliss."
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