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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:


Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition – A Review

3 Oct our lady of controversy

Published in Aigne: the online postgraduate journal for the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences, University College Cork.

University of Texas Press, 2011
Paperback, ISBN No.: 9780292726420 Price: $27.95

The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe is highly visible in Mexican and Mexican American culture, as evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of statuettes, portraits, memorabilia, tattooed bodies and graffiti art. She has been connected to notions of identity and nationalism as well as religious tradition, with visual representations appearing in prominent national and social events such as the Mexican Revolution and the United Farm Workers protests in California. In their edited collection, Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition (University of Texas Press, 2011), Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Alma López provide a unique and intimate view into the consequences of visual feminist revisions of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Written as part of the Chicana Matters Series, this collection gathers a host of respected scholars in the field of Chicana feminism, history and theory. Both López and Gaspar de Alba are noted Chicana lesbian feminists and students of Chicana feminism will be familiar with the works of novelist and theorist Emma Pérez and historian Deena Gonzalez (recently listed as one of the fifty most important living historians in the U.S. today).

The piece of art at the centre of the controversy, entitled “Our Lady”, was part of the exhibition “Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology”, held by the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The inclusion of “Our Lady”, a digital image of a brown-skinned woman with bare midriff and legs, standing proudly and gazing out at the viewer, angered local Catholic representatives and Chicano nationalists to such a degree that their vocal opposition to and organised protests against the artwork brought the Museum to the attention of the national media. The controversy raised a myriad of issues including the separation (or lack thereof) of state and religion, freedom of speech, artistic expression, religious expression, gender, sexuality, economy, immigration, race and tradition.

The book is structured around the notion of chiasmus, a figure of speech that offers a way of exploring opposing ideas by reversing the second half of an expression, thereby offering a new insight into the original idea. Gaspar de Alba offers Mae West’s famous line “It’s not about the men in my life, but about the life in my men” as an example of chiasmus in her introduction to the collection. In a similar way, each chapter takes arguments made in opposition to the art of López and repositions them from a feminist perspective. Five of the eleven chapters also employ the chiastic structure in their title and as a structuring trope. While most of the arguments against “Our Lady” bemoan the lack of respect for the traditional Catholic representation of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Controversy confronts the heteropatriarchal structures of the church, reinforced by traditional ceremony, and asks: Who owns the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe? Why can’t women re-imagine her in ways that enable identification and not just veneration?

Luz Calvo’s essay Art Comes for the Archbishop: The Semiotics of Contemporary Chicana Feminism and the Work of Alma López, provides a solid grounding of the Nahua and Hispanic religious and artistic symbols found in both the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that is said to have miraculously appeared on the tilma (cloak) of a native Indian in 1581, and also in the digital image of “Our Lady”, created by Alma López in 1999. The layers of storytelling, history and mythologies woven into the artistic images expose the reader to the complex nuances at play in the work being protested. For readers unacquainted with the story of La Virgen de Guadalupe, this essay also provides a glimpse into the social, cultural and historical issues at play as well as the religious. All of these points are taken and expanded on by other contributors to the collection. The problematics of male-centred discourse in issues of female representation are discussed by Clara Román-Odio, Emma Pérez, Christina Serna, Kathleen Fitzcallahan Jones and Catriona Esquibel Rueda. The more personal writings by Alma López at the beginning and conclusion of the book decisively outline the personal impact of the protests on the artist, while curator Tey Marianna Nunn provides an insightful reflection on contemporary Latina/o art as well as the personal and political implications of her involvement with the “Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology” exhibit.

Each chapter, original in its own right, builds upon points and opinions raised in other chapters, giving the entire collection a sense of communal dialogue and debate rather than simply a collection of isolated voices speaking within the rubric of a common theme. This idea of community is furthered by the inclusion of an 18 page appendix of ‘Selected Viewers Comments’ from the original exhibition. Both positive and negative remarks are transcribed into this section, giving a chance for both sides of the community to carry their point even into the publication of a book clearly arguing in favour of the art and artist. Moreover, included in the book is a CD of ‘I Love Lupe”, comprising a video interview with artists Ester Hernandez, Alma López and Yolanda López (no relation). This digital chapter integrates the notion of the original exhibition, “Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology”, by combining digital technology with the traditional book format. By allowing a community of artists speak directly to the reader, the DVD also illustrates how Alma López is actually part of an ongoing Chicana artistic tradition of reinterpreting La Virgen de Guadalupe.

The book constitutes a rich source of historical, political, feminist, religious, social and artistic issues pertinent not only in New Mexico but also in the wider Chicana/o community. The recent protests in opposition to “Our Lady” being exhibited in University College Cork as part of a Chicana exhibition give testament to the importance attributed to the representation of the Mother of Christ in patriarchal Catholic communities. They also highlighted the necessity for a book like Our Lady of Controversy in other Catholic communities, in order to create spaces for women to openly question that patriarchal tradition. The editors have provided a comprehensive, scholarly rebuttal to arguments against feminist revisions of a female figure within their own religious tradition. A definitive read for anyone interested in American and Mexican religious studies, feminism, Chicana art, history or political science.

Transitions and Continuities in Contemporary Chicana/o Culture

19 Jun

On 24-25 of June, University College Cork will hold the first major Chicana/o conference in Ireland. A host of academics from across Europe and the Americas are due to present papers on a diverse range of topics under the rubric of “Transitions and Continuities in Contemporary Chicana/o Culture”.

Running concurrently to the two day conference are two art exhibits by Chicana artists Alma Lopez and Celia Herrera Rodriguez. Lopez’s exhibition, “Our Lady and Other Queer Santas” ties in to the European book launch of “Our Lady of Controversy”, edited by Alma Lopez and Alicia Gaspar de Alba.

our lady of controversy

Our Lady of Controversy

This book hosts a collection of essays by Chicana writers who respond to the controversy surrounding the first exhibition of Lopez’s digital print “Our Lady” in New Mexico in 2001. On Friday 24th she will also be presenting a video screening of “I Love Lupe”, a video that accompanies the book and records interviews by Chicana visual artists who have also re-envisioned and re-imaged La Virgen de Guadalupe in their own art.

Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness

Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness

Celia Rodriguez’s work “enAguas enTlalocan / Prayers for Mother Waters” accompanies the worldwide release of “A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness” by award winning Xicana lesbian, feminist, writer, educator and dramaturgist, Cherrie Moraga. The book is a collection of Moraga’s writing that spans over a decade and is her first publication since her 1997 biographical work “Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood”. Rodriguez’s images appear and compliment Moraga’s writings throughout the book, using a contemporary twist on the style used in ancient Aztec codex. Her watercolours will also be on display Friday and Saturday in the same room as Lopez’s pieces.

The exhibition will be small but is free to the public and definitely worth a visit for any Chicano/a researcher in the country, or indeed anybody interested in contemporary Mexican American art.

Xicana Caminante

Xicana Caminante by Celia Herrera Rodriguez