Shamrock Social Club
9026 Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA
The aim of American jails is to ingest wayward souls and rehabilitate them to the point where they are useful to society. While it might not have been the California penal system’s goal, the jails in that state also fostered the prison tattoo art of Freddy Negrete, who went on to pioneer the fine-line black-and-gray work seen on everyone from inmates to A-listers. Much in the way that Negrete’s signature prison style has come in and out of vogue since the ’70s, his own life has been a roller coaster of life highs—tattooing with Ed Hardy, being named tattoo artist of the year, working on blockbuster movies—and drug highs that put him in jail and nearly killed him.
INKED: How did your crazy journey start?
FREDDY NEGRETE: My parents went to prison when I was a kid. My mother is Jewish and my father is Mexican, but the foster home they put us in was white so I was hanging out with surfer kids. My foster parents were pretty abusive. At around age 11 I started rebelling and found myself in juvenile hall. I was in a holding cell with an older kid—he was, like, 17, he was a cholo gangster who had tattoos all over and I was amazed by them. I started asking him about them and he told me that you get a needle, you melt it into a toothbrush, wrap it with thread, dip it in India ink or mascara, and you just poke yourself. When I got released the first thing I did was hook up a little needle to thread, got my sister’s mascara, and put my first little tattoo on me. I was really impressed by that guy in juvie—he was more like me than the surfer kids—that I also ended up becoming a cholo and joined the gang. Shortly, my whole left arm was covered in hand-poked tattoos. Among the youngsters I was the guy who did all the tattoos, the crosses and gang slogans. I was all right at it, and then when one of older guys, Bunky, got out of prison he showed me all the techniques they did in there and I took to prison style right away.
You learned prison style outside the joint?
But I perfected it in there. I went to Youth Authority, which is like state prison for teenagers. I was in this lock-up program called Tamarack. The program was for the hardest of the hard guys—it was like gladiator school. The staff was permissive with us, they let us do what we wanted as long as we didn’t kill each other—they let us tattoo. We got the plans of the tattoo machine from these guys in Susanville Prison. It was a single-needle sharpened guitar string hooked up to the motor from a ghetto blaster. I was there for three years and got really nice at prison-style black-and-gray.
Did you share designs between prisons?
I worked in the YA print shop and I would do these tattoo designs, then print out thousands of them on stationery paper so that guys could write home or to other guys and have, like, a letterhead. One of the most famous ones I came up with was while I was reading a magazine with an ad for an acting workshop. I saw the comedy and tragedy masks, so I did a sketch with a play off that oldie but goodie tune “Smile Now, Cry Later.” Another one was a charra girl in Daisy Dukes. My designs went everywhere.
Was there a notion that shaped prison style?
We were very conscious of the thin line. We thought that professional tattoos were cartoony looking with their thick, bold lines; we wanted our tattoos to look more real, with a thin line. And shading was everything to us. We would water down the black ink to make it lighter or let it evaporate to go darker.
In the prison system’s spirit of rehabilitation, you came out of Youth Authority with a skill.
When I got out I immediately set up in my apartment and everyone wanted prison-style tattoos. At the same time, Good Time Charlie’s opened up in east L.A. on Whittier Boulevard, and was attempting to do prison-style tattoos. The shop was owned by Good Time Charlie, and he employed Jack Rudy, Creeper, and Lady Blue. Jack’s nickname was Huero—everybody was going on about Huero this and Huero that. His tattoos were nice, but after I finished my tattoos I would send people into Good Time Charlie’s to show Huero my work. One day I heard that Huero wanted to meet me. When I walked into the shop I noticed that they had my charra girl with Daisy Dukes on their wall. I told them it was my design, and they said, “Dude, do you know how many people claimed that their cousin or uncle did this design?” Then I took the original out of my book and showed them.
And they hired you on the spot?
Jack liked the work I was doing, but Good Time Charlie ignored me. I think it was because Charlie came from Pike, where the carnies and the bikers owned tattooing. There was no way he was going to let a Mexican gangster cholo guy in his shop. When Good Time Charlie turned Christian, he sold the tattoo shop to Ed Hardy. Ed was impressed with the new prison style of tattooing and Jack told Ed about me. Ed brought me in because I could relate to all the cholos coming into the shop. This was at the height of cruising culture, when all the Mexican gangsters would cruise Whittier Boulevard. All of a sudden I was making money. When I was tattooing out of my house I didn’t know what the going rate was so I had been doing a lot of big ol’ tattoos for $15.
What did you learn from Hardy?
People don’t realize that he was the first to set up a shop like a dentist’s office and do “appointment only.” Before I met him I never saw Japanese or stuff done on that scale. Our style was that you cover yourself with a bunch of small black-and-gray tattoos—one piece here, one piece there, like badges—and then you’d fill in the spaces with some kind of background, like smoke or spider webs. He was doing elaborate color work where people would have one piece of art covering their body. I started swapping chairs with Bob Roberts at Realistic Tattoo Studio, Ed’s home shop, and started experimenting with bigger pieces and mixing color into black-and-gray pieces. In 1980, I won tattoo artist of the year at the Fifth World Tattoo Convention for this back piece I did of a black-and-gray Madonna with an all-color background.
You were also getting notice from Hollywood.
In the early ’90s I got a call from a producer saying he needed prison tattoos for a movie. After seeing me work start to finish on Freddy Corbin at a tattoo convention he hired me to work on Blood In, Blood Out, where I met make-up artist Fred Blau. We partnered up, developed a method for movie tattoos where the mix of colors would make them look like they were under the skin, and worked on some 30 feature films together.
What were your favorite projects?
The director of Con Air gave the actors free rein on their tattoos. Ving Rhames, who played Diamond Dog, and I designed all of his tattoos, each with a backstory. Blade was a big one. The original Blade character in the comic books didn’t have any tattoos, but Wesley Snipes insisted on it and so he and I got together. I also was in SAG and walked onto some of the movies. When I would show up on set as a day player, no one would talk to me, but when I walked on as the tattoo artist I was a star. During the filming of Fatal Instinct Carl Reiner asked me to do a temporary tattoo on his arm, so here is this old Jewish guy walking around all day on set showing off his ink.
Doesn’t get much better than that. Let’s talk about your lows: You struggled with drugs. What made you get sober?
I nearly died. After one of my sons died, I plummeted into heroin and speed addictions. I was already diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and when I violated a possession-parole I went back to prison. The withdrawal triggered the heart condition really bad. I was in a wheelchair, I had three heart attacks, the doctors in jail told me that I would probably need a heart transplant. My lungs were in failure, my liver was in failure, and I felt like I was going to die in jail, so I decided to pray. To get to this area where I could be alone and pray I had to climb two flights of stairs, which took me half an hour because I could only take a few steps at a time. It was pure suffering, but I prayed and asked God for more time. The next morning I had a heart attack. They rushed me to the hospital and I really felt different in there, like I was going to make it. Two weeks later they sent me back to the jail. I was walking around, I even started doing push-ups. Every Tuesday they would take me to the hospital and the doctor would check my heart. I told him about the push-ups and did a few for him. The following Tuesday I went back to the hospital and there were all these doctors and interns in the room. The doctor said, “Excuse all the interest. We’ve heard of people recovering like this, but have never seen it before.” God gave me more time. I didn’t want to go out like that in the county jail. I wanted a chance to show that I could really change my life and from there I went into rehab. It was there where I learned how to get sober and stay sober.
You were already a religious man, though, right?
In 1980 I became a born-again Christian through Victory Outreach, which was a church that reached out to gangs and people with drug addiction in east L.A. There were these hard-core guys, killers, who I knew from jail and tattooing that started to come around with Bibles and preaching God. It was a new thing to me. Back then I was using and I really wanted to change my life, I wanted to raise my son and save my marriage. I went to church and I was born again. Then they insisted that I had to quit tattooing, that it was a sin, so I did for some time.
What made you come back to tattooing?
After looking closer at the Bible passages they used [in arguments] against tattooing, I saw that it was telling people not to cut their flesh. Back then, when people were in mourning they would cut themselves and put marks on themselves.
There were cutters in Biblical times?
Yeah, and that’s why when the Jews are in mourning they will rip their clothing. They do that instead of cutting their flesh like the heathens. Then there is also the thought about tattooing false gods—but that’s not what tattooing is about these days.
So what’s your opinion of what tattooing is about now?
Tattooing’s about the art. We are in an individualistic society, and tattooing is a way of defining your individualism.
Will religion ever loosen up about tattoos?
I volunteer at Beit T’Shuvah, which helps out Jewish people who have drug problems. It’s a really large congregation that has youngsters from uppity homes who have heroin addictions. When I first got there, the rabbi, who is an ex-gangster, looked at me and said, “I’m going to change you from the outside in.” He would make me cover up my tattoos when I was there. But he has become more accepting. Now I even have a tattoo shop apprentice program with the kids who are kicking heroin.
You’re doing the Lord’s work. But do you think some tattoo shops can be crucibles for drug use?
Yes, but there are drugs everywhere. I think one of the hardest things a drug addict struggles with, especially if it’s a heroin habit, is scoring every day. And tattooing is still a cash-in-hand game. When I was at Tattoo Mania on the Strip, I would do a tattoo, then run up to the Rainbow Room and party, then go back, do another tattoo. I used to love the Strip except that back in the late ’80s everybody wore tights, and chicks didn’t like you unless you were wearing makeup and looked like a chick. Now I’m back on the Strip, at Mark Mahoney’s Shamrock Social Club. I owe Mark everything. I’ve fallen as far as a man can and he still believes in me, and even gave my son Isaiah a chair. My life is now about my son and our art. I’m now learning that I can be responsible and sober, and really focus on my tattoo art.
Do you feel like your art slipped?
When you are high you think you are doing a great job. But now I see tattoos I did when I was using that I cut corners on or didn’t do my best. I’ve been sober four years now and my art is still improving.
You have come a long way.
Yes, in sobriety. And I can’t believe that something I learned in prison would take me this far. I never thought that prison-style black-and-gray would get mainstream, but now it’s worldwide. It was just some troublemaker east L.A. cholo art, but black-and-gray and I are here to stay.