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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.

Filip-Leu-traditional-japanese-body-suit

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:

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

Blowout! Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice: review

12 May Blowout!

BLOWOUT!: Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice.

by Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro

Blowout!

Blowout! is the testimonio of American educator and activist Sal Castro. A phrase adapted by a Garfield High School student from a jazz term that means “to be expressive”, Blowout! was heard from tens of thousands of high school students, primarily Chicano, as they walked out of their classrooms in 1968 in protest at the poor quality of education they were receiving in East L.A. Carried out over a ten year period, this book is the result of hundreds of hours of recorded conversations compiled by historian Dr. Mario Garcia with Sal Castro as well as with a wealth of other students, teachers, administrators, artists and activists who knew Sal personally, many of whom had also been part of the 1968 High School Blowouts.

These blowouts are hailed as the impetus of the urban Chicano Movement, following on from the rural Chicano Movement that had begun some time earlier with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers thus placing Sal Castro as one of the most important Chicano Civil Rights activists of the 60s and 70s. This is the first time his story has been written.

Garcia frames the main autobiographical text of Blowout! with an introduction and epilogue that situate Castro’s story within that of the larger Chicano Movement. In the afterword, Garcia outlines the strong links between Castro’s approach to teaching and the theories of Brazilian pedagogue and educational theorist, Paulo Freire. While Freire is no stranger to most educators today, during the 60s and 70s his work was not widely read outside of Latin America. Castro was completely unaware of his work. However, the concepts of conscientização (conscientization or critical consciousness) are undeniably present as you read through the testimony of Sal Castro.

Unlike most other testimonios, Garcia peppers Castro’s accounts with quotes from different people and news articles. While there is the obvious danger of fracturing the narrator’s story, in this case it has worked quite well and the fluidity of the text is maintained. Moreover, Castro repeatedly emphasises his desire to empower the students and community, to have them speak out so the infrequent additions adds a symbolic connection between teacher and community that suits the text.

Blowout! tells the story of Sal Castro from his early childhood in Mexico to his present retirement. His firsthand experience of discrimination in the U.S. educational system as both a student and educator; in the U.S. Army where he experiences Jim Crow during his travels in the South; and society in general like when his father is returned to Mexico after WWII as part of the “repatriation” program thus forcing his parents to separate, which ultimately leads to their divorce, all provide insights into the challenges faced by immigrant communities in the U.S. at the time. These experiences would also help Castro as he critically assessed and challenged the U.S. education system. He gives personal accounts of the Zoot Suit riots, the Watts riots, the Chicano Moratorium against the war in Vietnam and more. As a teacher of history and politics as well as his background in campaigning for various senators – including John and, later, Robert Kennedy – Castro masterfully contextualises the political and social climate of the 60s and 70s in the build up to, and the later repercussion of, the blowouts, all the while managing to maintain a sense of humour that can only endear him to the reader.

This book is a strong asset not only to Chicano Studies but also to U.S. History, Political Sciences and Education Studies. While it is the testimonio of Sal Castro, it is ultimately the story of young High School students who finally found a teacher who believed in them and gave them the courage and opportunity to protest the inequalities they already knew about and faced daily in their schools and colleges. Although many problems still persist in the education system, the enduring legacy of the blowouts is visible in the ever increasing enrollment of Chicanos and Latinos at third level institutions, a greater presence of Latinos as teachers as well as on educational boards and the emergence of Chicano Studies as an elective in High Schools.

SB 1070 hits Arizona economy and Arpaio gets Hollywood posse

18 Nov

It’s official, SB1070 has created economic havoc within the cash strapped state. While the national and global economic downturn certainly played their part in Arizona’s current situation, the immigration bill signed into law by Senator Jan Brewer this year has exacerbated the problem. A recent study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) [conducted by economic firm Elliot D. Pollack & Co.] reports an estimated loss of over 140 million dollars in the tourism industry in the four months since the bill was passed. Much of this comes from the cancellation of conferences and meetings from outside of Arizona in protest at SB1070. An estimated 15 million people visit Arizona each year and, according to the state’s tourism board, 16.6 billion dollars was brought into Arizona by conferences and other tourist related activities in 2009. Arizona’s Hotel and Lodging Association has reported losses of 15 million dollars, but CAP calculated these lodging cancellations as costing treble this – about 45 million dollars. It then also calculated the cumulative costs of food, beverage, transportation, entertainment and tax revenue which would also be lost due directly to the cancellation of these lodgings. This resulted in the overall 16.6 billion dollar figure. It has also led to the loss of 2,700 jobs.

According to the Pew Hispanic Centre (a nonpartisan organisation which draws from the national U.S. census bureau) the Hispanic community forms 30% of the state’s population, or around 1, 965,000 citizens. Ponte al Dia reports that 60,000 Latin American owned businesses have generated 34 billion dollars in Arizona in the last five years. The same article claims that the state of Arizona boasts the fifth largest birth rate of Hispanic born children – following New York, Florida, Texas and California and that as the Hispanic population is more optimistic about the recovery of the U.S. economy in general, they are the largest consumer market in Arizona at this time – many of those interviewed listed material or luxury items such as computers, digital cameras, televisions and package holidays as things they were planning to buy in the next six months.

So reports of an exodus of 100,000 Hispanics since the bill was written into law has given businesses and politicians a genuine cause for concern. After U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked some of the measures within the law on constitutional grounds some opponents of the law, like U.S. Rep Raul Grijalva, called for an end to the boycott. So far, this seems to have fallen on deaf ears, with sports and music ventures still opting out or simply not adding Arizona on their tour dates for the foreseeable future.

However, supporters of the bill have said that these short term costs do not outweigh the long term costs of illegal immigrants. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Arizona will pay 2.8 billion dollars on the health care, education and incarceration of illegal immigrants in 2010 alone. Time, and legal proceedings, will tell.

Meanwhile, controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio has been joined by some well know names from the entertainment industry to create the Maricopa County Sheriff’s 60th posse of illegal immigrant fighters. Steven Seagal, a deputy in New Orleans, and Lou Ferrigno (of “Hulk” fame), a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, were sworn in last week. They were also joined by actor Peter Lupus (from “Mission Impossible”), a man named Wyatt Earp – nephew to the famed lawman – and a retired Chicago police officer named Dick Tracy. Of the 56 new members 33 are already qualified to carry weapons. Arpaio hope the “high profile” of these recruits will help raise awareness of the illegal immigration issue.

 

Between Borders

20 May

Just received a copy of Between Borders (ed. Del Castillo, Adelaida R.)

An expensive purchase, but I really needed to get a hold of essay by José E Limón entitled “La Llorona, The Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women, and the Political Unconscious.”

After delving through the last two books, I found myself looking for religious symbols in the protests in Arizona. As La Virgen has transcended political borders, moving as a cultural and political symbol from Mexico to the US – from the Mexican revolution to the United Farm Workers’ protests – it was vaguely surprising to find no image cropping up in the plethora of videos and news articles I have come across so far dealing with either SB1070 or HB2281.* However, the protests have not been completely bereft of Catholic iconography, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus appearing in artwork displayed in the Art Campaign of Alto Arizona, among others.

With a strong tradition of mural and other street art on the borderlands and beyond, it is not surprising to find some excellent artwork being produced in response to the current political landscape of Arizona. However, instead of the Virgen or other Aztec figures, as have been reproduced in the past, artists appear to be taking inspiration from more Eurocentric white supremist groups. Nazi Germany iconography – the swastika and Nazi uniforms – and the KKK uniform appear over and over again. This is not surprising, given the threat of racial profiling which protestors fear will arise from the bill.

Arizona citizens who are pro the immigration and/or Ethnic Studies bill, or who are simply fed up with the protesting and threats of boycott action from neighbouring states have also produced their own artwork. There is one in particular which has appeared on twitter a few times; a photoshop of a cactus to look like someone flipping the bird (unfortunately I’ve lost the link, but when I find the right one, I’ll post it). It’s concise, but forcibly portrays the anger and resentment brewing in opposition to the groups of protestors.

*It should be noted that as a non-US citizen writing from outside Arizona I am constrained to what is appearing on the internet. There could be other iconography appearing, however my research has not yet uncovered any on the internet. Any arguments/proof to the contrary are greatly welcome!

Oklahoma introduces Immigration Law HB 1804

11 May

After weeks of protest and unrest HB1804 (House Bill 1804) has come into law in Oklahoma. Following the signing of SB 1070 in Arizona and the high profile reactions to its introduction, it is not surprising that HB1804 has accrued similar sentiment from its citizens.

You can read the bill here at the United Front Task Force website [.rtf and .doc]. The site also contains the Memoradum of Agreement (MOA) between the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) [pdf).

As with the Arizona law there is wrangling between the different parties and officials as to the legitimacy, necessity and scope of this anti-immigration law. The problem of immigration being a federal rather than state issue has again raised its head with the National Coalition of Latino Clergy filing a suit precisely because they see the bill as the state overstepping their authority on a federal matter. Representatives like Randy Terrill, one of the authors of the bill has reiterated the failure of national legislation which has spurred this recent state action on immigration: “The states have to act because the federal government has refused to enforce our nation’s borders and turned every state into a border state,” he told reporters with the Washington Times.

However, NewsOk, an Oklahoma news site has stated that it is too late for legislators to tackle such a huge issue this session.

The Latino community, is duly concerned about the threat of racial profiling. With business members who work within primarily Latino areas claiming massive drops in profits since the introduction of the bill as Latinos stay at home more for fear of deportation. Indeed The Urban Institute, a respected national research organization,  hasjust released a study, commissioned by the National Council of La Raza, titled “Untangling the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act: Consequences for Children and Families” that looks closely at the effects of HB 1804. In it one of the major implications of the bill on the Latino community has been to instil fear; primarily of deportation and thus separation from children.

What it also finds, however, is that most of the legislation – such as the prevention of supplying state aid to undocumented immigrants – has already been in place since the 1990s.

With the furore in Arizona, Oklahoma’s geographical location and a massive budget crisis, why introduce an immigration law now? In Arizona the issue seems to stem primarily from a political manoeuvre to regain lost faith from a primarily republican electorate. But Oklahoma is not a border state, with a far smaller immigrant population, what has spurred politicians into looking at immigration when budgets are the primary problem? Or is that why immigration now seems like a good area to tackle?