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Ink Inc.

How an L.A. tattoo artist became corporate America's go-to guy for the urban market

Author Michael Kaplan

IN AN INDUSTRIAL POCKET OF DOWNTOWN L.A., a tattoo artist by the name of Mr. Cartoon administers his empire. It occupies several buildings fronted by steel garage doors, behind which resides a small fortune in customized cars. Adorned with bespoke art in the front and fitted with hydraulics in the rear, most of them date back to the 1960s and all are shinier than the day they were made.

Upstairs, in a cozy studio, Cartoon tattoos clients like Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. His address and phone number are unlisted, and for non-celebrities the waiting list can be six months long. “When somebody comes in for an appointment, I congratulate him,” says the 5-foot-5 artist, who sports a shaved head and manicured goatee. “He had to work for it.”

Tattooing is what made the 43-year-old Cartoon (born Mark Machado) initially famous, but he has leveraged that into something far greater. Working with photographer Estevan Oriol and marketing man Mark Suroff, Cartoon formed SA Studios Global, which does advertising, marketing, event planning and product development for clients that include Metro PCS, Vans, Nike and Diesel. Earlier this year, he designed both a wristwatch and, unlikely as it sounds, a cologne for a fashion house. His own artwork, in the form of a tricked-out ice cream truck, has been exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

For his next act, Mr. Cartoon is teaming up with Atticus Firey—formerly the president and COO of Meguiar’s, one of the world’s largest makers of car-care products—to launch Sanctiond Automotive, a line of washes and waxes. Meant to upend a $2.2 billion segment of the car-care industry, the venture promises to be a perfect marriage of Cartoon’s automotive, corporate and tattoo contacts. “I’ll give a ballplayer a discount on a tattoo and ask him to do a spot for the Web when we’re done,” Cartoon says. “He introduces himself and says, ‘Is your car Sanctiond?’”

Mr. Cartoon is an all-American success story. Born to middle-class Mexican parents and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of San Pedro, he was drawn to Latino street culture, fascinated by the bumping cars, wild tattoos and overall style that defined a certain segment of Chicano males in Southern California. He got his own tattoos as soon as he could afford them, always coming in with original designs.

In 1992, when he was 23 years old, Cartoon bought his first tattooing rig and learned the art by inking friends for free. When he opened his own shop in 2001, he exhibited the kind of confidence that would either make him or break him. “Right from the start, I had a $500 minimum for tattoos,” Cartoon remembers. “Somebody walked in with $450, I told him to come back when he had another $50.” The customer returned.

Thanks to partner Estevan Oriol, who road-managed The Fugees in their heyday, Cartoon soon caught fire with the music crowd. The athletes followed, including Carlos Boozer of the Chicago Bulls, Carl Crawford of the L.A. Dodgers and the New York Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire.

When Cartoon was asked to come to New York City for a Nike promotional event in 2003—”They wanted to pay me $10,000 to tattoo at a party”—he was stoked. “But Mark [Suroff ] told me that I had to turn it down unless they would let me come to New York as a sneaker designer, not as a tattoo artist. He said that if I took $10,000 for tattooing now, I’d never get more than that for something bigger later on.” Nike came around and Cartoon was officially in the sneaker business, creating shoes for the company and putting on major events designed to appeal to the urban community.

Other companies were quick to view Cartoon as a conduit to that same lucrative but elusive market. When, for example, the iced-tea brand Brisk was having trouble landing Eminem for a TV commercial, Cartoon dropped in and worked it out with a phone call—after all, he had just finished inking the volatile Detroit rapper. The resulting claymation ad helped his firm’s advertising arm win a cultural branding gig with Pepsi, Brisk’s parent company. Tying that story back to Sanctiond, Firey says, “How much better can it be than to have the guy who Fortune 100 companies hire to help reach urban markets?”

Back downstairs in his garage, amid more than a dozen customized autos and a trophy case jammed with awards for first-place finishes at car shows across the country, Cartoon half jokes that it might be “intervention time” vis-à-vis the car collection. But there is an upside.

“Now that I have a wax company, it makes sense for me to have all these cars,” Cartoon says. “It used to be that people thought I was crazy.”

MICHAEL KAPLAN, an entirely untattooed writer living in Brooklyn, writes for Wired, Details and the New York Times.

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THIS MONTH’S AMAZING FACT

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
When making snap judgments, people look out for No. 1

The average person makes a startling number of decisions in a single day: French vanilla coffee or medium roast? USA Today or the New York Times? Ask directions from the man in the mustache or the woman in the pantsuit? When answering these questions, you might think you’re making well-considered selections using all the information available to you, but researchers from UC Berkeley beg to differ. According to their recent research, no matter what the decision is, if you have to make it quickly you’re more likely to select the option you’re given first.

The researchers figured this out by offering subjects choices between teams they could join, salespeople they could buy from, brands of gum they could chew, and even criminals they might parole. There were no appreciable biases between the outcomes when subjects were given time to deliberate, but when they were asked to make an immediate choice, or were immediately given a test of unconscious preference, they picked the first option more often than not.

So consider this another reason to take your time on important decisions. There’s no telling what might happen if you drink that French vanilla coffee. —JACQUELINE DETWILER

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