Smile Now, Cry Later: Freddy Negrete and Chicano Black-and-Gray Fineline Tattooing

5 Jan
smile now, cry later

Smile Now, Cry Later

If you’ve ever seen an image of a chola with smoking guns or two theatre masks- one smiling, one crying, joined with the phrase “smile now, cry later”- you’ve seen an original Freddy Negrete work of art. The tattoos in Blood in Blood Out (1993), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and Blade (1998) are also his handiwork. He has appeared on the television series Marked (2009), been a guest judge on shows like “Ink Master” (Season Two), and more recently been a central figure in the feature documentary on American tattooing, Tattoo Nation (2013).

He is one of the pioneers of Chicano black-and-gray fineline tattooing, one of the most commonly used styles of tattooing today, yet for all his impact on the world of tattoo art, Negrete remains relatively unknown to the general public.

Freddy Negrete

Freddy Negrete

The son of a Jewish mother and Mexican father, Freddy Negrete grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Frequently in trouble with the law, he spent time in and out of juvenile halls. While there, he became fascinated with the tattoos of the other men, so much so that he decided to try it out for himself. He was shown how to put a basic tattoo machine together, using different items available – tattooing is illegal in the prison system, but more on that later – and taught some basic application techniques. He started tattooing himself at the age of eleven and by the age of eighteen he was almost completely covered in handpicked tattoos. During his time in youth authority, Negrete was moved to a program for the “criminally insane”. In an interview with Kristie Bertucci, he explains that the staff at this program were more lenient when it came to tattooing and so he spent nearly every day of the next three years honing his skills.

When he was finally released, he continued tattooing from his apartment. As gang member, Negrete’s customers were often fellow gang members and his tattooing regularly included images associated with Chicano street gangs, many of which drew from their Mexican cultural hertiage: portraits of La Virgen de Guadalupe and Jesu Cristo, Aztec gods, Adelitas, Zapata and other Mexican revolutionary figures, as well as images from lowrider culture, gang affiliation symbols and ornate calligraphy.

Unlike conventional tattoo shops of the time, which only used tattoo machines that worked with groups of needles, Negrete used the ‘prison-style’ tattoo technique, which used a single needle – because tattooing was illegal within the prison system, inmates constructed machines from different odds and ends available to them. This could include the engine of a radio or cassette player, a toothbrush, pen, guitar string, pencil eraser. It always meant a single needle. This single needle application allowed inmates to produce finer line work and detail in their tattoos than contemporary tattoo shops.

Homemade tattoo gun.

Homemade tattoo gun. Image via Temporary Service.

Ink was also a highly prized commodity in prison. It was sometimes made using the rubber of boot heels or burning baby oil and cotton in a metal tin, using the blackened dust that remained after burning the oil and cotton mix, soot mixed with shampoo, pen ink, melted styrofoam. The black ash was then mixed with water to create ink. This restriction in colour and tones meant tattoo artists in prison had to find new ways of dealing with shading and light. Gradation techniques differed from artist to artist, and was accomplished by watering down the ink, changing the depth of the needle penetration or shading over sections in order to build up darker tones. Although some shops now use whites and grays when tattooing black and gray tattoos, black ink and water alone remains the traditional method.

Traditional American tattoo flash. These usually had a nautical theme and were popularised by artist Sailor Jerry

Traditional American tattoo flash. These usually had a nautical theme and were popularised by artist Norman Keith Collins aka Sailor Jerry (1911 – 1973)

Around this time, Traditional American, with its thick blue-black lines and bold, solid colours, was the popular tattoo style. It had a strong connections with the US military, especially the Navy. Black and gray tattoos were associated with gang members and prison convicts. However, the combination of fine line work, precise detailing and new shading techniques meant that ‘prison style’ quickly started gaining favour outside the prison system, with members of the public actively looking for shops that could, and would, replicate this style.

Negrete’s work eventually came to the attention of Goodtime Charlie and Jack Rudy – who is best known for inventing the single needle for the professional tattoo machine – in Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland on Whittier Boulevard. As he tells Kristie Bertucci:

They discovered that the people in East L.A. didn’t want color work and just wanted black, and the reason for that was because everybody wanted it to look like they got it done in prison. They saw tattoos that I did and sent word for me to go over there and eventually they gave me a job there.

When Goodtime Charlie decided to retire, Don Ed Hardy bought the business and renamed the shop Goodtime Charlie’s Tattoo Land. Hardy was fascinated with the new style coming out of East L.A. and decided to help push it out onto the international stage.  Negrete, for his part, was amazed at the colours and scale of Hardy’s work. Negrete was used to small scale tattoos. Prison tattoos were generally small so they could be completed quickly, reducing the risk of getting caught. Hardy’s influences came from Japan, where full body suits are common practice. By working together, both artists learned much from each other in content, form and technique. Hardy also advised Negrete to change the name ‘prison style’ to ‘black-and-gray fineline’ tattooing, which it is most commonly referred to today.


Japanese body suit.

It was not always such a clear path for Negrete, however, either professionally or personally. An Evangelical movement called Victory Outreach visited and converted many gang members in East L.A., including Negrete. He used his new faith to help him fight his alcohol and drug addiction. He even quit tattooing for ten years when he was told that it was a sin. During this decade, he kept busy in other ways, earning a bachelor’s degree in biblical literature and a master’s degree in apocalyptic literature. Eventually, however, he began to question the arguments he had been given against tattooing, and decided to return to his craft.

In 2005, tragedy struck home, with Negrete’s eldest son killed in gang violence. The death hit him hard. He returned to heroin and found himself back in prison. “Here I was — 50 years old, back in prison, tattooing with a homemade machine for soup, just like I did when I was a young kid” (bound by ink).

After his release, Mark Mahoney offered him work in the Shamrock Social Club. Negrete took the job and works from there today,

Front part of full Chicano body suit

Front section of a Chicano body suit

along with his son, Isaiah. He also runs a tattoo shop apprentice program with the Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish treatment centre for teenagers struggling with heroin addiction. “I have these kids as young as 18 years old in my group that are already heroin addicts”, he explains to Mike Landers. “During our meetings, I always find an opportunity to give them actual lessons from my life, so they look up to me because I can relate and I make the group fun”. Negrete credits this program, and the founder, rabbi Mark Borowitz, with his own addiction recovery.

Although his life has all the makings of a classic Hollywood movie, his place as a pioneer of Chicano black-and-gray fineline remains too far in the shadows. With an autobiography in the pipeline, and the growing demand of his work by celebrities, this may be set to change.

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. (inked magazine)

For more on Freddy Negrete and other Chicano tattoo artists, check out Tattoo Nation:


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