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Exclusive Interview with Freddy Negrete

Written by Ysmay on .

We've all seen the black and gray tattoos with stunning shading, but not many people know this Chicano style of tattooing was born behind bars in Los Angeles. Thanks to tattoo greats like Freddy Negrete, who is one of the pioneers of the black and gray style, the Chicano style flooded out on the streets. Freddy is currently one of the premier tattoo artists in L.A., and he slings ink (by appointment only) at Mark Mahoney's Shamrock Social Club.

You may have seen Freddy on History Channel's "Marked" or have heard mention of him recently by guitarist Dave Navarro who calls Freddy one of his favorite tattoo artists, but there's more to this tattoo artist than meets the eye. Unlike many tattoo artists out there these days, Freddy understands the culture, what the people want, and why they want it.

In this exclusive interview, our CEO Ysmay talked to Freddy Negrete about his work, the culture behind black and gray tattoos, and his life in Los Angeles.

Ysmay: How did you start tattooing?

Freddy: Well, when I was very young - around eleven - I started rebelling and getting in trouble, and I remember being in juvenile hall. I saw this Cholo kid, a kid from Montavilla, and he had a handful of tattoos all over him, and I was just amazed by them.

It was a holding cell, we were waiting for court, and we were the only ones in the court because I was an eleven year old kid. I started asking him all these questions about the tattoos. He said you get a needle and thread, and you wrap the thread around the needle and dip the needle in India ink. I was released that day and I went straight home and followed his instructions and did my first tattoo on myself.

Not long after that I ended up joining a Chicano gang [Sangra], and by the time I was twelve I had a handful of tattoos inked on.

My father was an artist and art ability ran in my family, and I could draw, so I ended up becoming the neighborhood tattoo kid doing a lot of pachuco crosses and gang slogans on all of the homies. Some of my older homeboys that got out of prison were prison tattoo artists. They showed me how to do it with a sharpened guitar string, two guitar strings put together, melted into the toothbrush and all that. I started doing some pretty big hand poked tattoos in my neighborhood. Girl heads and a lot of the Chicano culture stuff.

I ended up getting into more trouble, of course, being in a gang. In the Chicano culture tattoos are important, but nobody wanted shop tattoos. They wanted the tattoos that looked like they were done in prison.

What's the visual difference? What makes a tattoo look like it was done in prison vs. a shop?

Well, eventually when they learned how to make the prison machines out of the tape players, the difference was they wanted thin lines and shading to try to make the images appear more realistic. Shop tattoos and traditional tattoos [at the time] always thought that the lines should be big and bold and filled in with color. The artwork was always really basic and simple. What we were trying to do is make things look more realistic with gray shading and real thin lines, and no color whatsoever. All black.

Why was the realism important?

I think when people saw it they were more impressed with it because it was more artful. It was a unique style that developed in prison for one, because they had no color to work with - just blacks and grays - and two, it was a better way of expressing the images they wanted to portray, like the Charra girl.

The Charra girl is a big one. It is a bust of a girl with a big sombrero and a gun belt.  We were trying to make it look detailed and real.

What is it about the Charra girl that is important? What does she symbolize?

Number one we like women, so we would always tattoo girls and girl heads, but secondly the Charra represented the rebel way of life because the Charra is a symbol of the Mexican Revolution, which if anything, it is important to us because it was a rebel way. The Charra girl expresses our warrior nature because we're in gangs, or we are at war with each other. We consider ourselves warriors.

The Aztec Warrior is another image that is important and the Aztec Girl because they both say something about our culture that we feel is important. It was a culture that was conquered and destroyed.

The religious icons are also important to us because we are Catholic. They express our love for God and Church, but they [religious icon tattoos] are more cultural. Being Catholic is just part of our culture, more so than religion, because none of us were religious.

I lived in a tiny Hispanic town in New Mexico and people seemed to identify with going to church and having the big family dinners after church more because that was expected - that is just what you do on a Sunday - not because they believed in the message the church was preaching.

Right, and that is how it was with us because we were out on the streets doing horrible things, but tattooing a Virgin Mary, a Jesus head, or other religious icons just represented being Hispanic.

When I was in youth authority, I was in the print shop and I worked in the camera room in the print shop and I learned all these cultural images and designed them Smile Now Cry Later by Freddy NegreteSmile Now Cry Later by Freddy Negreteand put my twist on them, and we would print them on stationery paper, and then print lines on it, and down in the bottom left-hand corner we would print an image I drew up, just reduce it down and put it on the paper, and we printed thousands of those and we mailed stacks of the paper to all the different prisons and people would write home on this stationery and those images made it all over L.A. 

When I was looking through a magazine for different things to design and get ideas, I saw an ad for an acting workshop and I saw the comedy-tragedy faces. I drew my own version and there is a song, an oldie but goodie song, we would always listen to called "Smile Now, Cry Later." I wrote the name of that song on the tattoo and that's how that tattoo got started. Everybody gets it.

That must be surreal. How long ago did you design that?

In the 70s, 1976. Then, when I got out, I started tattooing out of my apartment with this homemade machine, and at the same time there was a tattoo shop called Good Time Charlie's. Back in L.A. in those days, there were a few ways to go get tattoos. The Pike in Long Beach was at the Carnival and downtown L.A. on Main Street.

This guy Charlie Cartwright decided to open up in East L.A. because he saw a market for tattoos down there, so he opened up this shop called Good Time Charlie's on Whittier Boulevard where all the gangs and everybody would cruise. He had a great business out there, but he realized that these people only wanted half the tattoo done - which is how he looked at it. They didn't want any color. They just wanted the black line and the shading.

Then he hired this guy named Jack Rudy who was a white guy, but grew up with Mexicans. They called him Guero which means "white." Jack had a little more knowledge of what the people wanted and he developed the single needle for the professional tattoo machine - because they had always used multiple needs for the line work - and he started doing really nice work.

I was doing work out of my apartment and people would come to me and say "Hey, this guy Guero wanted us to show you this" and I would send people to him to check out the work that I was doing. So finally he told somebody, "Hey, have him come down to the shop" so I went down there and met him. I saw my designs, the ones that I designed in the print shop, on the wall, and I told him, "Hey, I designed those" and he says, "Man, everybody says they designed them or their uncle or somebody designed them." I happened to have the original drawings with me, and he was like, "Wow."

At the time no Hispanics were in the tattoo trade. The bikers and the carnies pretty much ran it and there wasn't going to be anybody else. They took me to Charlie Cartwright but he didn't even really talk to me. They weren't interested. Jack, Guero, was like, "Hey, let's keep in touch. I want to see more of your work." And that was that.

Then Good Time Charlie turned Christian and quit tattooing, and he sold his shop to Ed Hardy. Ed Hardy at the time was The Master tattoo artist. He introduced Japanese style to America, he perfected the traditional style, and he discovered this new style that is what he called Black and Gray - the Chicano style. When the shop was for sale Ed didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands, so he bought the shop. Jack Rudy told him about me. And Hardy said, "We gotta get this guy in here. He knows the work they want," and he hired me. I went to work with Jack Rudy at Good Time Charlie's, and Ed Hardy was the owner at the time. This was in 1977.

I understand you took a break from tattooing, too. What did you do in that time?

When I was tattooing in East L.A. in the late 1970s, there was this Evangelical movement called Victory Outreach. It was a Born Again Christian thing and they were reaching out to the neighborhoods and the gangsters in East L.A., and a lot of people converted. I remember all these guys I was in prison with, really hardcore gangsters, who would come into the shop all the time, and suddenly they had Bibles, and they were talking about God. At the time I was using and I needed a change. I turned Christian for a while, and then I went to college.

What did you study in college?

Biblical literature.

I understand you have two degrees, right?

Right. A Bachelors in Biblical Literature, and the other is a Masters in Apocalyptic Literature. It was exactly ten years I was out of tattooing. 

What were the challenges of tattooing with the original equipment - like the sharpened guitar strings - versus the professional equipment when you joined Good Time Charlie's?

They didn't want me using prison equipment, so I had to learn how to tattoo with the professional stuff. Jack developed the single needle for the professional machine, so I picked it up right away. I did a tattoo on my leg the first day and then the next day I brought a friend in, and I tattooed him. And then one of the other guys that was working there hated the fact that Ed hired me and he quit. They needed me to go to work right away, so by the third day I was already working. I picked up on the professional equipment really quick.

We started perfecting our thing, perfecting our black and gray realism, which is what Ed Hardy named it, and it is now a mainstream style. It's really big in Japan and Europe, and all across the country.

When you see the type of work they are doing now it's unbelievable.

Why are portraits so popular? As a way to honor other people or is there more to it?

There is the portrait for love of family. People like getting their parents, their children, their spouses. Because of high death rate in the Chicano neighborhoods with the gangs, people will remember their homies by getting ink portraits of them. Now there are a lot of people tattooing portraits of celebrities on them.

Yes, I noticed that. I don't understand.

There is even a category in the tattoo contests of "Best Celebrity Portraits."

Interesting. I don't think I would want one.

A lot of people will get the starlets like Marilyn Monroe. I know people who have all of 'em, Shirley Temple, and all that. And then they'll get the characters. They will tattoo the characters from gangster movies. I've seen every kind of celebrity portrait you could think of. I think people are still most impressed with the realism of a portrait. To do a portrait on paper is one thing, but to see it on the skin is impressive.

How do you get the shading? What is it about the technique that allows for the smooth gradient and the nice contours in the shading?

I use a series of mixed down black, mixed with mineral water. You just add water to the black ink and there are different shades you can create, and if you want to go lighter you can just dip it into a cup of water. You can really get that gray gradation down to light really good using all these different water-based shades.

I have heard of some people letting the blood rise to the surface and then using that to water down the ink. Is that a popular technique or more obscure?

That's obscure. My tattoos hardly bleed. They only bleed a lot when you're hitting the skin real hard, and there are seven layers of skin. You really don't need to go beyond that. When you keep the tattoo to the skin layers, there is some seepage and some blood, but my tattoos don't even have enough blood to really mix it down. That seems really obscure. If somebody is getting that much blood in a tattoo they are going too deep and they are taking a risk on the tattoo scarring up. 

You mentioned something about a book. Can you tell me more about that or is that under wraps?

Right now it's at the book proposal stage. I have a really dynamic story, my whole life story is really something, so I have this great writer working on it, and we have a good agent. We are talking to a publisher now about doing a combination of my memoirs and an art book. I think it will be about a year. We barely finished the proposal this month because we had another documentary where they focus on my life that's coming out. It is a big documentary called "Tattoo Nation: Black and Gray L.A." and it has the whole story of black and gray and how it has come to where it is now, and how it started.

Did you see the History Channel show [Marked] I did? 

I did actually. It was very interesting. How did you get involved with that show?

Thank you. They contacted me. I did a few things years ago like "Celebrity Ink and Tattoos" with TLC and I did a cultural tattoo piece with the Discovery Channel. History Channel came to me about it. 

Why do you think the Chicano style is more popular in L.A. compared to the more traditional style? Up north in San Francisco people seem to be more interested in the thick lines and the color.

It's like that pretty much everywhere. People everywhere are getting more and more turned on by black and gray, there's no doubt about that, but I think because L.A. is where it is originated, that's all the people seem to want in L.A., but I do color as well.

About how many tattoos do you do on a weekly basis?

I try to do 3 or 4 a day, and I take Sundays off. I average 8-10 tattoos a week.

How do you see the tattoos evolving in L.A.? Are they getting more and more refined or are they starting to go back to the old more traditional routes?

I really see it developing more as an art form. There's always going to be those that specialize in the traditional, but even there... when you take an art form and you learn it really good, and then you add your own artistic twist to it. Like the Japanese tattooers - the people who specialize in Japanese tattoos, for instance - like Philip Lou. He isn't Japanese, but he learned the traditional style of Japanese and he's such a great artist, and he added his artistic license to it and now people are taking what he has added to it, learning his style, and adding to that.

What's your twist on the style?

I think as an originator I have my style, but I do have my twist, and I'm not unteachable. I am looking and learning what some of these young great artists are doing, and seeing other things that look good and I am incorporating that into my art as well. My art is a developing thing, but I think it really has to do with the artist. Here's this artist, and this is their art, and that's how they do it. You appreciate it. There is no way of saying one person is better.

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