Mister Cartoon, the famous Los Angeles tattoo artist, was in New York this week for a tattoo tour. And because he finished a tattoo that was supposed to take two days in one session -- he tattooed through the night and finished at 10 in the morning -- he found himself with some free time. So he traveled up to the Bronx one night to paint a mural at Tuff City Tattoos.
“We’re paying homage,” he said.
He’s been coming to New York since the early 1990s. “It’s every graffiti writer’s dream to come to New York, especially California boys, who take graffiti really serious,” he said. “We were always inspired by New York, as far as bombing styles go. We combined it with LA cholo style -- and mixed it together to come up with our own look.”
He was with a small entourage, which included Gaby Acevedo, the president of SRC records, who has known Mister Cartoon for 15 years. “Did all my tattoos,” he said. His T-shirt exposed tattoos on both arms. “No more, though. I got my last one seven years ago.” Acevedo rotated his left forearm to display his last tattoo. “It’s my daughter’s name,” he said. “But no more. No more pain.”
Conquering the Bronx
It was Mister Cartoon’s first time at Tuff City, and he took in the big space. There were five tattoo rooms, each made to resemble a subway train. A giant rack of spray paint extended half the length of the store. The owner -- who goes by Med -- is a graffiti artist, and the tattoo artists also write graffiti.
Brian -- “I write Dwels, D-W-E-L-S ” he says -- was in charge that night. He told Mister Cartoon that there was an issue with the lights, so the mural would have to wait a few minutes. Mister Cartoon, who was wearing a tan jacket over a white T-shirt and loose jeans, situated himself at the corner of the counter and started to draw in black ink on white paper, attracting a crowd, including an older man with dark shades and a maroon winter hat.
“This is Boots 119, ’70s original graffiti legend.” Brian said, emphatically. “Original train killer.”
Among Boots’s accomplishments, Brian added, were appearances on the cover of the Style Wars video and in the movie The Godfather. “I was 10 years old,” Boots said about the latter. “I was in a wife beater. James Caan was in my scene, by the fire hydrant. I was in the beatin’ scene.”
We combined it with LA cholo style -- and mixed it together to come up with our own look.
Boots observed Mister Cartoon with interest. “See how you can burn, with just a simple black and white,” he said, like a TV commentator. “There you have it.”
“Doing a little West Coast hand style,” Mister Cartoon said, writing Tuff City on the top of a sheet of paper in an elaborate flowery hand.
“When did you start writing?” Boots asked.
“I started writing in about ’86,” Mister Cartoons said.
“What do you think about this hand-style, Boots?” Brian asked.
“I love it! It’s beautiful,” Boots said. “He’s got that definite ability. That’s incredible. Dynamite.”
L.A. We Go Hard
Encouraged by the gathering curiosity, Mister Cartoon proceeded to give a brief illustrated talk on the progression of graffiti style in Los Angeles.
“We learned how to do graffiti through Style Wars and Subway Art book,” he explained. “We have every page memorized.”
He drew some block letters with odd angled serifs. “This is real ’60s style. People were trying to emulate Old English but it was done in a way that you could write fast on a wall.”
Eventually word came that the outside lights had been rewired, and the lesson was over. Mister Cartoon picked out cans of spray paint from a wall behind the counter, pulling an array of blues and blacks. They were stuffed into plastic bags and carried outside, where Tuff City had replicated the side of an old subway train in an alley behind the store. “We had a guy that made it to specifications,” Brian said.
Mister Cartoon proceeded to write his graffiti name -- Mister CTOONS -- in a stylish script. He worked methodically in the bitter cold night, his hands covered in black gloves, and a black Tuff City beanie (emergency attire) pulled down over his head.
“Coming out here I get motivated,” he said. “California is laid back. You come out here you get fired up. I go back home and yell at everyone at my studio.”
Two weeks ago, Mister Cartoon joined LeBron James and Jay-Z at a Boys and Girls Club in East Los Angeles, where they paid for a renovation. Mister Cartoon painted a mural inside the gym.
He said he was born just down the street. “East LA gets neglected a lot because it’s on the east side,” he said. “Even though South Central and those places have struggles, they’re on the west side. But the east side gets lost. They chose me to do the mural.”
Mister Cartoon has been doing community outreach for the past 13 years. “Being able to go to these cities and talk to kids is great for me,” he said. “I can get a kid’s attention through art or a low rider or a pair of shoes I’m designing. Them seeing more of the idea, ‘Maybe I can be an artist. I never thought about it until I heard that idiot Cartoon talk about it.’”
Mister Cartoon added he knew exactly what he wanted to do at an early age. “My advantage in life is that I found my passion as a kid. If you asked me when I was 10 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, when I was going to do it, how I was going to feel while doing it. And it was this.”