“LA Originals” is part reminiscence and part reclamation. The documentary, streaming on Netflix, finds the filmmaker and photographer Estevan Oriol, who directed, revisiting his career and the career of his friend and collaborator Mark Machado, a tattoo artist to the stars who goes by the names Cartoon or Mr. Cartoon.
Both became instrumental figures in the Los Angeles hip-hop scene starting in the late 1980s and early ’90s, doing work that fused the mainstream (album covers, music videos) with the city’s Chicano art traditions, and also captured violence, poverty and addiction in parts of Los Angeles that in recent years have gentrified.
Although the film unfolds from an insider’s perspective (with an irritating tendency to drop one name after another), it is also a good introduction to the two artists. We learn how Cartoon, already recognized for his graffiti murals, turned to skin, and how Oriol, who shot tour footage of the rap groups Cypress Hill and House of Pain, came to know Cartoon and bring him customers. The pair worked together for years in the shadow of Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Oriol would film and photograph the many celebrities who visited the studio for inking.
Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 likens getting a Cartoon tattoo to being part of an exclusive club. Such was Cartoon’s reach that Kobe Bryant, who died in January, recalls encountering a hotel worker in Beijing who recognized the artist’s handiwork. For his part, Oriol, in this film’s telling, popularized a much-imitated finger-miming of the letters “L” and “A,” and showed an ace eye for candid shots and music videos.
Despite the access and gushing testimonials (Snoop Dogg says that Cartoon is the only person he lets do “my tattoos and my kids’ tattoos”), “LA Originals” is less interesting as a celebrity gabfest than as a record of changing urban and cultural landscapes. Oriol talks about the iconographic significance of a viaduct that was closed to be replaced. Cartoon and Oriol befriended Skid Row residents during their years working alongside them.
A man identified as an ex-gang member and drug user at the time lovingly recalls an incident in which he was passed out near the studio, and got sprayed with water as a wake-up call before clients arrived. (The movie has footage of that, too.) Another man, identified as Pepper, the mayor of Skid Row, suggests that the two artists were part of a family that never gave up on him.
Way too much of “LA Originals” has that overly chummy vibe, but the shambling, yearbook quality of the film is also its reason for being. Oriol says at the start that his 25 years’ worth of footage and photographs inspired him to make the documentary. That archival material is a major asset.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.