Self-portraits are respected, if not overtly encouraged in virtually all artforms. Except cinema. There, when directors turn the camera on themselves, it can seem indulgent, if not downright gratuitous. It’s a tricky line to walk, sharing without showing off, revealing insights no one else could while maintaining enough distance for audiences to relate. When it goes right, audiences get something seismic, ground-breaking like “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the Banksy bombshell dismantling of his own mystique. “LA Originals” is the opposite, a feature-length sizzle reel in service of its makers’ still semi-underground reputation.
In this Netflix original, which was supposed to premiere at the coronavirus-canceled SXSW Film Festival last month, photographer Estevan Oriol assembles a monumental tribute to the downtown Los Angeles scene from which he and best friend/business associate Mister Cartoon (tattoo legend Mark Machado) emerged to become unlikely influencers. You know their work: Oriol shot the famous “L.A. Fingers,” as well as Snoop Dogg’s “Ego Trippin” album cover, while Cartoon’s intricate designs for 50 Cent’s back and Eminem’s arms made him a top name in celebrity tattoos.
Not necessarily household names, but well on their way, these two Chicano artists absolutely deserve to be the focus of a documentary about how such outsiders shaped the mainstream. But when said homage originates from the subject’s own hand, it comes off feeling more like self-aggrandizement — a flashy commercial for the duo’s S.A. Studios, full of testimonials from Snoop Dogg, George Lopez, the late Kobe Bryant and more. Their enthusiastic endorsements all sound like variations on this gem from Def Jam CEO Paul Rosenberg: “There’s so much going on with these guys. They’re super ambitious, super creative. Super fun to be around. Super a—holes at times.”
Imagine 90 minutes of Oriol and Cartoon’s friends (a who’s who of more hip-hop, sports and Latino stars than you can cram into a “Fast & Furious” movie) dropping such ego-amplifying “insights,” punctuated with examples of their work — candid B&W snaps of street and celebrity culture, plus intricate tattoos imprinted on famous chests, backs and sleeves — and you’ve got a pretty good idea of “LA Originals.” At one point, you can hear Cartoon feeding this line to Eminem to repeat: “Cartoon is the greatest tattoo artist to ever live.” Impressive, but hardly objective.
If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo and regretted it (if not the ink itself, then the $50,000 price tag Mister Cartoon reportedly charges the likes of Eminem), “LA Originals” will make you feel better about your choices. But the movie’s also for the children, the ones looking for role models. It’s a history lesson on how two self-made success stories rose up from downtown L.A. — at the intersection of street art, lowrider custom-car culture, hard drugs and gang life — to become stars in their own right, packaged like a Christmas card for former clients and super-fans, set to an epic soundtrack by the acts Oriol photographed over the course of his career.
It’s hardly a rigorous self-reflection, and the conflict another director might have amplified for dramatic effect feels far in the rearview mirror (for instance, Oriol introduces his drug use and announces going clean within the span of a minute, and interactions with law enforcement are hazy at best). Still, if Oriol hadn’t taken the initiative to tell their story, who else was going to do it? As he announces on camera at the outset, he’s got years of footage — incredible backstage access to bands like Cypress Hill and Blink-182 — and is uniquely positioned to connect the dots between all the iterations of their career, from Cartoon’s early days doing street murals (back when he signed his work “Flame”) to the custom Cortez sneakers he designed for Nike, once corporate culture wanted to co-opt them.
In a way, it seems both inevitable and uncanny that Oriol and Cartoon paired up to become such a perfect partnership. As one of the highest profile tattoo artists in the business (his talent is undeniable, but marking celebrities gave him cred), Mister Cartoon improvises artworks that assume permanence once they hit a rap star’s skin. Meanwhile, with his off-the-cuff shooting style, Oriol observes ephemeral moments and immortalizes them on film, resulting in grainy, documentary-style portraits of tough guys (under the needle, performing on stage) and voluptuous gals (under dressed, posing on cars) instantly recognizable by their shallow focus and fish-eye effects.
Both operate with a kind of in-the-moment intuition, creating work that endures. And although Oriol never goes so far as to assert this on camera, whether photographing or tattooing someone, these guys are essentially claiming their territory, the way graffiti artists do the walls that they tag. A star such as Ryan Phillippe may feel like part of an exclusive “brotherhood” of dudes who’ve got pinta (prison-style) tattoos by Cartoon, but he’s also the poser who paid to look like he just served a 10-year sentence.
It takes nearly an hour for “LA Originals” to move past the self-promotion and get to the significance of their success — what it means that these two talents were being true to themselves and the culture they loved — embracing rap music before it went mainstream, tattoos before every spring breaker sported them and gang signs before such iconography trickled down to Starbucks cups and H&M T-shirts. They imprinted directly onto the establishment, the way street-shaped gallery names like Shepard Fairey and David Choe (talking heads here) and hip-hop legends (plenty of whom also feature) have done. But they’re also among the most visible contemporary Chicano artists Los Angeles has to offer, and better a self-serving documentary than none at all.