By Kristie Bertucci
Tattoos have become a worldwide, cultural phenomenon. Practically everyone has them, and they are no longer cultural stigmas. Instead, they are merely artistic expressions of the body. Many might have heard, or even have examples of, fine-line black and grey ink. But what many might no know is that they have tattoo legend Freddy Negrete to thank for that.
As a pioneer in the world of the fine line black and gray tattoo art, Negrete was part of a revolutionary group of tattoo artists with diverse styles, including Mark Mahoney, Bob Roberts and Leo Zuleta. Named tattoo artist of the year in 1980, Negrete has more than 35 years of experience under his belt. But that’s not all. During his busy tattooing career, Negrete found the time to finish college, work on movie sets and become a musician. Read on to find out what makes this tattoo legend tick!
A lot of tattoo artists get into the business because they obviously love tattoos. What’s your story on how you got into the business?
It’s always been my life. I got into as a kid. I was 12 years old and my whole arm was covered with handpicked tattoos, and in the ’70s that was kind of weird. My parents sent me to a psychologist and everything; they thought I was crazy. By the time I was 18 I was covered with them.
While I was in juvenile hall, I met guys with all types of tattoos and this just fascinated me. I got really good at drawing there. In youth authority, there was this lock-up program for the “criminally insane” and the staff there let us tattoo on each other. We had the homemade machines made out of cassette players and stuff. Since they let us do that, I got really good at it right there. Everyday I was tattooing. I was there for about three years, so when I got out I was tattooing at my apartment. Goodtime Charlie and Jack Rudy had opened up Goodtime Charlie’s in East L.A., and so I used to see the work they were doing. It used to be one of those little used-car lots. It had like a little house with an office building in the back with a fountain in the front.
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. So, I must have been 17 when I mastered the art of tattooing professionally in 1977.
How would you say you pioneered the black and grey style?
I was already doing the prison-style tattoos in my apartment with homemade machines, but it was at Goodtime Charlie’s where we took the black and grey style and made into a professional tattoo style. Now it’s called fine-line black and grey. Back when I first started tattooing, the prominent style, of course, was the traditional style, which was what all the shops were doing. Those who wanted black and grey, prison-style came to us at Goodtime Charlie’s because no one else was doing it at the time. From then on, it became really popular and that’s really where my popularity lies.
Many consider you to be a legend in the industry? Do you think this of yourself?
I never want to straight say it since I’m humble, but I will accept the fact that I was the first one to introduce the style. If people want to stay legend, so be it.
So how did you end up working with the famed Ed Hardy?
Eventually, what happened was Good Time Charlie quit tattooing and Ed Hardy saw what we were doing and was amazed by that. He was already promoting the Japanese style in America. So when Good Time Charlie quit, he bought the tattoo shop, and named it Good Time Charlie’s Tattoo Land and that’s where we really took off in what we were doing.
Did Ed Hardy’s Japanese style technique rub off on you while working with him?
I was amazed with the Japanese style after that. I would see people covering their whole bodies with this one design and in color, so I started mixing black and grey with color, doing designs like that. I didn’t necessarily do Japanese style, but would take the homie style and would mix it with color and then make it big so that it covered more of the body in a particular area.
After working at various shops, you opened your own in Santa Barbara. How did that go?
Yup, I called it Ratatattoo, but I don’t have it anymore. It was a good tattoo shop. I had it from 1992 to 1998. I wouldn’t want the headaches of owning a shop again.
Where are you out of now?
I’m at Mark Mahoney’s Shamrock Tattoo on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. I’m there full-time by appointment only. My son Isaiah is there with me. He actually tattoos tons of celebrities.
Speaking of which, what big names have you inked?
I’ve tattooed Brandy, Foxy Brown, Boy George [laughs], Jim Jones and a few others.
There’s a ten-year stint in your career, where you stopped tattooing. This was after you were named artist of the year in 1980. What made you want to stop?
At the time in East L.A. there was this other thing going on with Born Again Christians called Victory Outreach. They started preaching to gang members, and I was like a famous one there that became a professional tattoo artist. I knew all the main gangsters and Victory Outreach started coming around the shop to preach to the homies that would come around. I would actually see a big change in all these guys, and at the time, I started to have personal problems and they convinced me to join up with them. Once I did, they told me I had to stop tattooing since it was a sin, so I didn’t want to do it anymore. Of course I don’t feel that way now.
I remember them telling me that I’d be working for the church and getting paid by them. I was doing artwork for them since I knew how to run a printing press from my prison days, but when it came time to get paid I didn’t. So I got turned off with that.
So what else did you do in that gap?
I decided to go to college and went to Azusa Pacific. I was an Archaeology major, and my emphasis was apocalyptic literature. I got my B.A. and Masters.
When you started tattooing again, you went back to the Tattooland in San Diego, but then got the opportunity to work on movies. Can you tell me a little bit about this time in your career?
I was in San Diego for not quite a year, because after that I got a letter from this film director. He wanted somebody to help him. He was doing a prison movie, and he wanted somebody to help him with the tattoos since he wanted them to be authentic. So I met him, and they hired me, and I was working at my own shop and doing the movie thing for a while. I thought I was just going to be working a few weeks on that show, but so many things happened that he hired me for the rest of the duration. I worked on it for six months, and I became partners with Freddie Blau, the makeup artist. This was from 1990 to 2000. He’s the one that invented Real Creations. So, after that, he was the one who got me on a lot of films, about 30-something features. It was really fun. Some of the movies include Blood In Blood Out, Blade, Batman 2, Conair just to name a few. Together, Blau and I came up with tons of tattoos and different ways of doing it. I’m not doing it anymore because there are so many makeup artists that now do it that I’m not needed anymore. Back when it first took off, Freddy would always get me on the movie since none of the makeup artists could do it, so I would always make it impossible for them copy it so that I’d always get jobs. These makeup artists use Freddy’s tattoo kits and some of the tattoo designs that are included are mine.
Besides having worked on movies, you also dabbled in music a bit. Can you talk to me about your music career? Are you still doing it?
When I was doing temporary tattoos, I was doing it for this music video for some girl Raja Nay. I ended up putting them on her for real. When she came to the tattoo shop, she would bring her boyfriend with her, and he was cool. Well, the third time they came up there, I found out he was a producer. So I played the demo for him, and he said we could work something out. His name was Chris Gunn, and, way back then, in 1993, we started recording. Then, all of a sudden, the owner from Thump decided he didn’t want any more gangster rap because Kid Frost hit him, and he just had too many with him. And, at the same time, I was doing punk-style, Mexican rap lyrics, but I wanted to do rock n’ roll like my friend Lynn from Snot. I was all into Snot and rock n’ roll. I didn’t want anything to do with that other thing. My heart was set on keeping that rock ‘n’ roll thing. So, when we got back to Hollywood, this time, we got it going and we signed with Tyson Beckford, the supermodel. He had something going for us in New York, and we joined another group; me and my son since he sings, too, after the label went bankrupt. But that deal fell through.
This was the time when my youngest son passed away in 2004. My life was in shambles, so I ended up back in prison. When I got out, I then got arrested again, but then went into a Jewish rehab (my father is Mexican and my mother is Jewish). That’s where all the changes took place in my life. I got clean, started practicing Judaism and my producer would always call and tell me not to stop making music. Right now, I’m back on the music track and doing it again. We’ll see what happens.
So, having been in the industry so long, what are your thoughts on the progression of the tattoo world from when you first started until now?
I think that it’s legitimately become an art form. Of course there’s going to be people against it, but at least now it doesn’t mean you’re a reject from society, and the opposition because of a personal preference. You’d be considered a gangster before if you were all tatted up. Now you can go anywhere with tattoos. Before, you couldn’t get a job and you’d be judged a lot. I think there’s less judgment about it now. Still have some people who need to hide it because of their profession, like I tattooed this one lady who is a surgeon, but if you take her clothes off you’d see her whole body is covered with tattoos.
What about the new generation of tattoo artists? Do you welcome them?
I’ve always been all for new talent and new artists, which is uncommon for older artists. Most of the established tattoo artists are pretty quiet about the trade and don’t want new people in it because it means new shops and that means slower business for them. But, you have to accommodate the demand. I’m just happy to see all the talent and great tattoos being done now.
So what are your plans for the future? Will you always be tattooing?
I am going to the music thing, and I’m looking forward to that. And, I’ll always tattoo. I’ll keep at it, always doing my best. I’ll try to pickup on what the younger generations come up with and learn from them to become a better tattoo artist. I always want to be better. I’ve got to keep tattooing, or I’ll be in trouble with myself.