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.