REVIEW: ‘LA Originals,’ Showcases the Rise of Chicano Art And Its Place in Hip Hop

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LA Originals

LA Originals is an exploration of the culture and landmarks of Chicano art that cemented Mister Cartoon and Estevan Oriol’s status as behind-the-scenes hip hop and Chicano legends. Directed by Oriol himself, this documentary charts the iconic duo’s life through hip hop, success, gentrification, violence, and how they reached legendary status.

Estevan Oriol is a photographer and music video director who came from a life of managing bands like House of Pain and Cypress Hill, and covering it all as the only one with a camera. Through footage from the decades on the road with hip hop acts, Oriol tells not only his and Cartoon’s story but the story of hip hop from the background. In his section of the documentary, it becomes clear that Oriol’s dedication and work ethic pushed him as a man wearing many hats on the road. Director, manager, videographer; he was a one-man documentarian at the heart of hip hop.

Mister Cartoon (Mark Machado), or more commonly just Cartoon, is a tattoo artist and graffiti artist based in Los Angeles, California. LA Originals digs deep into his history moving from Chicano artwork originating in prisons which he saw on friends and families’ letters in prison, to his time as a graffiti artist, to an airbrusher, to an iconic tattooist who has tattooed nearly every name in hip hop, and finally to a respected cultural figurehead who was able to design his own Cortez, the signature shoe of cholo culture.

Watching LA Original was the first time I had seen the impact of Chicanos on hip hop explored so openly and authentically. Growing up, Cypress Hill was a constant. Whether you heard Mr. Greenthumb blasting from the windows of a lowrider or “Insane In the Brain” coming on and automatically making the school dance erupt, Cypress Hill was a representation of what our community could do in hip hop. Cypress Hill and Oriol’s involvement with the band represents a direct link to music. LA Originals also dives into the bonds built between the Black and Chicano communities in LA in 1992 after the brutal beating of Rodney King by a police officer.

Once LA Originals shows how Cartoon and Oriol met, you get to see how the two were able to build an empire of art together. But this documentary is never just about the good times. When you watch films, there is a certain sanitization that happens, especially when it represents the director’s own life. That said, LA Originals is anything but clean. Oriol explains his own struggle with addiction, how he got clean, and how he keeps that throughline by showcasing how the two maintained a business on Skid Row. In opening their hearts to the homeless nearby, this led Oriol to cover the drug use in the area. There is a shocking amount of reality shown in LA Originals, with footage that not only catches concerts but also overdoses and homelessness as well.

LA Originals

LA Originals chronicles Chicano art in its beauty and in its connection to violence. In one section of the film, Oriol details how he began to photograph gangs in LA, using footage from his meetings with gang members that never feel like a man coming to watch and document people like animals in a zoo, something that is common in documentaries. Instead, he is part of their culture. There is respect, and in that respect and friendship, Oriol adds the somber reality of the cost of gang life, the violence and death, as he shows photos of friends he has lost.

As for Cartoon, you get the chance to see how his art pioneered and spread the Chicano aesthetic throughout hip hop, but also throughout the world. While Cartoon speaks about his trajectory, its the voices that speak about him that showcase his legendary status. From Snoop and Cypress Hill, to Michelle Rodriguez and Geroge Lopez, there are many celebrities both in and out of hip hop that speak of the beauty and skill of Cartoon’s tattooing.

While LA Originals showcases how Oriol and Cartoon impacted hip hop culture, the documentary also shows their impact on the community and on Hollywood as the two grew. Oriol has taken portraits of Robert DeNiro, Snoop, George Lopez, and more while Cartoon has tattooed a range of celebrities outside the music scene from Kobe Bryant to 2000s heart-throb Ryan Phillipe. The people who show up in the documentary are a beautiful representation of how the two men have used their artistic skills to not only build their lives but impact the artistic landscape of hip hop and Los Angeles itself. In fact, Cartoon and Oriol also left a mark on Blink 182’s history, which should feel worlds away from hip hop, but instead the trajectory feels natural.

My only issue with the documentary is that issues like gentrification aren’t explored as expansively as I could tell Oriol wanted to. It’s a small chapter in the film that is overshadowed by the film’s closing. That said, this is more of me wanting to hear more of Oriol’s passionate anger against what’s happening to Los Angeles rather than a fault in his filmmaking.

While watching LA Originals, I was in awe. Not because of the realities shown but because I was watching as George Lopez called Oriol “Cholo Da Vincis.” From graffiti to tattoos, and even being responsible for the aesthetic of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Mister Cartoon and Estevan Oriol have changed art, music, and have touched spaces of pop culture that some people would have deemed inaccessible to them as two Chicanos from East LA. There is a power in LA Originals that resonates through the film. For hip hop fans and beyond, LA Originals is a much watch.

LA Originals
  • 9.5/10
    Rating - 9.5/10
9.5/10

TL;DR

While watching LA Originals, I was in awe. Not because of the realities shown but because I was watching as George Lopez called Oriol “Cholo Da Vincis.” From graffiti to tattoos, and even being responsible for the aesthetic of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Mister Cartoon and Estevan Oriol have changed art, music, and have touched spaces of pop culture that some people would have deemed inaccessible to them as two Chicanos from East LA. There is a power in LA Originals that resonates through the film. For hip hop fans and beyond, LA Originals is a much watch.