To get tattooed by Mister Cartoon is to receive a history lesson in LA gangster. In the two hours I spent in the iconic artist’s chair, I learned how to fashion a tattoo gun out of a Walkman (“Are you too young to know what a Walkman is?” he quips), the origin of that ornate, gothic lettering as applied to both tattoos and graffiti (“I taught myself how to do it to impress girls”) and even a general geographical breakdown of Los Angeles gang culture. What else would you expect from a guy who’s tattooed the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Prodigy and 50 Cent (not to mention Beyoncé and Kobe Bryant).
On this occasion, Cartoon and I weren’t in his nondescript studio on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, but in a decadent town house-come-tattoo parlor in New York’s Meatpacking District. A collaboration between the artist and Tequila Cazadores, the pop-up was entitled “Never Forget Where You Come From.” Sure, that’s Cazadore’s tagline, but it could just as well be Cartoon’s – the man is obsessed by tradition and origin stories. The collab is also fitting because it just so happens that Cartoon actually drinks the stuff.
Speaking of origin stories, every inch of the three-floor pop-up had been transformed to reflect Cartoon’s. There’s a station at which guests can get airbrushed T-shirts; an homage to the artist’s time spent airbrushing at Big Palace of Wheels (the wheel shop owned by Freeway Rick Ross, the so-called “King of Crack”). There’s a tag wall, recalling the graffiti tags Cartoon would use to decorate his neighborhood of Harbor Area in LA County. There’s the coveted Air Force 1 he made in collaboration with Nike. There’s also, of course, dozens of framed images of his tattoos, done in seemingly impossible shades of grey in fine line style (i.e. using a single needle).
When I first sit in Cartoon’s chair, I’m nervous. For one, I want him to like me and I’m not sure if he will. I’m a 20-something white girl from Toronto. The tattoos I have are simplistic line drawings done by friends after-hours in tattoo studios or, more frequently, in their shitty New York apartments. There are also a couple gnarly stick-n-pokes thrown in for good measure. To be honest, I don’t know much about tattoo history or tattoo culture, but I know enough to know that getting a piece from Cartoon is a big deal. Even the Uber driver who dropped me off at my appointment knew it was a big deal, exclaiming, “You’re getting tattooed by Mr. Cartoon?! That’s fucking dope!”
I’m also nervous because I’m wearing a microphone and there are bright lights and cameras and an audience of people drinking fancy tequila-based cocktails. Most of the folks in that audience, which grows over the two-hour period, are tattoo artists themselves. I even recognize one, Paulie Tattoo, from LA Ink.
But as soon as I hear the sound of the needle – which is hardly a sound at all because of course Cartoon uses a superior needle that pierces the skin with a whisper – it’s as if I’m with an old friend shooting the shit (I’m sure he employs a similar sense of intimacy and candor with all of his clients). And he tells me about all that fascinating LA gangster stuff but also about his kids (who’s names are tattooed on his hands) his wife (whom he met at one of his own house parties) and that time he drew a banquet of body parts for Hustler magazine.
I leave the pop-up with a bottle of Cazadores tequila and the words “Not Sorry” etched on my bicep in classic tattoo script – a cheeky reference to where I come from: Canada. But before I do, I give Cartoon a hug (he first went for a handshake but, as I said, I’m Canadian). “You sat very well,” he says. I’ve never felt so gangster.