Freddy Negrete

A Conversation

Freddy, can you please introduce yourself for the folks reading this?

My name is Freddy Negrete, and I tattoo at the Shamrock Social Club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, California.

Let’s begin in the earliest part of your career. Can you tell us how you got your start ?

When I first got into tattooing, I was kid in a foster home. Both of my parents were gang members. They ended up in prison and I started rebelling and running away and I remember I was in juvenile hall and I saw this kid and he was like a cholo kid. He’s like 16 or 17. I was only 12 but we ended up in the same cell waiting for court, and he had all these tattoos all over him. He had like his neighborhood and he had a girl’s head and all that stuff. I was just like amazed with his tattoos and I was like, hey, let me check this out.

I thought because we were the only two in the cell and because I was a little kid, he probably wouldn’t ever give me the time of the day, but he started to tell me yeah, my homeboy did this. And I was like, how do you do it? He told me they got a needle and wrapped thread around it, and dipped it in India ink. And he goes, “And also girl’s mascara works. And then you just poke it in.”

I got out of juvenile hall that afternoon and that night, I remember I was in my room, in my bed and I made a little tent in there with a flashlight and took my sister's mascara and a needle and I did my first little tattoo right here. I saved it, but not long after that, I joined a gang and I was so obsessed with tattooing,

I became like the neighborhood tattoo artist and I was putting all the pachuco crosses and all these tattoos on my hand, this was when I was around 12 years old.

When did you start tattooing professioanlly?

How I got into professional tattooing, I continued hand poking and of course, being in a gang, plus I was a troubled youth. I was always the one that was going to juvenile hall and camp and Youth Authority but I ended up in Youth Authority in a lock-up program because I got into more trouble when I was in there.

They would send you to Tracy prison, you do a 90-day observation, and then from there, if they approved it, they would send you back away to this program called Tamarack program and Tamarack was like this lock-up program and the oldest facility used. It was built in the 1800s, it’s like a dungeon and there was the Preston School of Industry, but the staff there, their policy towards us was, as long as you guys don’t kill each other, we’ll let you do what you want. They brought us pornography, and they let us tattoo, and we got the plans for the tattoo machines. I remember they were from Susanville Prison. So we started making the tattoo machines with the staff letting us tattoo, we’d be locked down together in the cells and all day long, we were all covered with tattoos and this is in 1975.

So, I got really good at it. In fact, some of those staff members would even come in my cell and let me tattoo them. Eventually, they gave me a year time cut because they believed that I could get a job in a tattoo shop. So when I got out, I set up in my apartment, so I was tattooing out of my apartment. At the same time, there was a tattoo shop in East LA called Good Time Charlie’s. They were attempting to do prison-style tattoo and that’s what I specialized in. That’s where I learned. People were just like fanatical about it, these guys would come to my apartment and they said, “Yes, I got this at Good Time Charlie’s. This guy Juero did it.” And it was nice tattoos.

I was like, wow, that’s spot on. So, I would do my tattoos and I tell them, “Hey, go over there to Good Time Charlie’s and show them what I’m doing.” So, eventually, Jack had sent word with somebody and said, “Hey, have this Coyote guy come down to the tattoo shop, I want to meet him.” So, as soon as I got here, I noticed that my designs were on the walls.

And so everybody had this stuff, everybody in East LA, all the neighborhoods and stuff. So, when I went in, I saw those designs on the wall as flash and I said, “Hey, that’s my design, that’s my design.” He’s like, “Man, everybody says that. Everybody that sees those oh, their uncle or somebody in prison did it.” So, I happen to have the originals on me, I brought it with me, and I showed them the originals.

So, anyway, Jack and I hit it off then. There was no talk then about a job or anything, but soon after, Good Time Charlie quit tattooing. He became a Christian, quit tattooing, and Ed Hardy had bought the shop. Jack Rudy told Ed Hardy about me and Ed Hardy was like, “We got to get this guy working here because he could relate to these people.” I mean it was a rough neighborhood and the tattoo guys, they were white, and they’re in the middle of East LA and all these gangs were everywhere. You could tell, right when you walk into that tattoo shop, there was an uneasy relationship between the tattooers and the customers because the workstations had like iron bars. In order to get into the workstation, you had to go through an electric gate.

So, anyways, being that I had been locked up so much, it’s like all the most hardcore guys were always in juvenile hall camp, Youth Authority and prison. So, we all knew each other. So, as soon as I started working there, the neighborhoods all over LA knew who I was. All their main home boys were friends of mine, or else they would come and say, "My homeboy so and so knows you from prison, blah blah." I was cool to everybody, even my enemies. So, there I was working at Good Time Charlie’s.

And about fine line tattooing...I mean I’ve heard Mark Mahoney say on numerous occasions that often in tattoo folklore, you don’t get the credibility of being one of those forefathers of that art form, of that style. Can you tell us from your experience how single needle came about?

Well, of course, the fine line started in prison, and the idea was that as fine as the line you could make, then the closer to realism you could get by doing a real fine line and shading off that line. So in prison, you would take a guitar string and you would stick it through in the eraser, a pencil eraser and then roll it on a little piece of sandpaper, just roll it like that. It would sharpen up perfectly, and that’s the needle that we used, a sharpened guitar string. And so, of course, Jack Rudy and Charlie, they’d figured a way to apply it to the professional thing because when you’re tattooing, you need multiple needles together in order for the ink to flow through the crevices. That’s how it flows out under the skin when you’re tattooing. If you have just a single needle out of an electric machine, the professional machine, the ink just falls right off the needle and just blobs up on top of the skin.

So, as you’re tattooing, the ink would fall out, and some parts will go in the skin and other parts won’t. That’s why all the professional tattoo artists at that time were saying, “Single needle doesn’t work. It’s going to fall out.” So Jack and Charlie came up with the idea of getting a needle and extending it out just a little bit from the other two needles, so the ink still flowed and you had that fine line.

The other thing was using a gray shading and no color. Of course, in prison, you don’t have colors. You water down the ink or you evaporate the ink to make it darker, so all those things were things were established in prison. It was Good Time Charlie’s that was doing everything to bring that style to the people.

So, it was helpful that I came on, but Mark Mahoney on the other hand, he loved that style. When he went to work for Jack, he immediately perfected it. What Mark was doing took it another level, I think, and when I saw what Mark was doing, I saw that he was making it more artful, more flowing, and really making the most of the religious icons. Him being Irish, like the Hispanic culture, we were so into the religious icons. Everybody wanted Jesus head and a Mary and all that stuff because we were Catholic, and the Irish love those images as well. So, Mark really loved that style.

So as Mark was infusing more Catholic imagery, would you say that you were bringing more chicano type imagery to the style?

Yes, the Chicano culture was very important to me because, like I said, I was raised in a foster home. My parents went to prison. I was raised in a white foster home, and they were abusive. I remember my foster father used to say, “Ah, you’re a dirty Mexican. You’re no good and this and that.” So, I mean I always knew that I was Mexican, even though I mean in reality my mother is Jewish and my father is Mexican. I knew where the Mexican neighborhood was in the suburbs of LA. You have like a city like San Gabriel, that’s where I am from. In the middle of this city is the old neighborhood, the old city, and that’s where all the Mexicans lived. It was kind of rundown with graffiti all over and stuff.

I went to school there, and I just always thought I belonged over there with them. Finally, I went and I joined the gang. I took that culture on, and so the fact that I was light skinned and half white, the fact that I was raised in a foster home, and everybody kind of knew me at school and stuff, I made a transition. I went from like a surfer kid to a cholo kid.

So, I felt like I had something to prove, and maybe that’s why I acted so crazy. Then being one of the leaders of my neighborhood, and of course, the art. I remember my younger years in juvenile hall for instance, this kid Pom-Pom. He was a little bit older of a teenager as well, but he had a wooden leg. He would sit out in a field, and the counselors brought him paper and pencils because he was an artist. He would draw Mary’s and he would draw crosses and roses and ribbons and then little cholo characters and girl heads.

I would just go and sit and watch and draw and he would teach me about the images. I was learning it and then I would eventually be drawing what I learned. So, it was because of being locked up that I was able to develop my art ability and of course, the subject matter had to do with all the Chicanos style.

What it's like to have your son here, teaching Boo-Boo the trade? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yes, well, when I had my tattoo shop in Santa Barbara and I always knew that my son Boo-Boo had talent. He could draw and everything, and I was still kind of this rebel guy.

So my son, they wouldn’t accept him in the regular high school so he was going to the continuation school. They kept sending him home for having baggy clothes. So, I showed up to the school wearing baggy clothes saying, what the hell difference does it make what kind of clothes you wear? And they’re always giving him trouble. So then, I said, "Okay, we won’t sweat them about the baggy clothes." But then one day, he wore his brother’s jacket and there was a little tiny pocket knife in there. So, they expelled him from school.

So, I said, "You know what? You’re going to start an apprenticeship right now." The guy that I had managing the shop for me during the day was really good with sterilization and all that stuff, so I had Boo-Boo do an apprenticeship under him when he was 14. So, he did a year of apprenticeship and I started him working when he was like 15. It was funny. We had pictures of him, here’s this little kid, the gloves are all baggy on him and stuff and he’s tattooing people. Professional people and stuff are coming for tattoos. “Okay, this is going to be your tattoo artist,” and they’re like, “This little kid?”

He did a great job and I love him. I was never strict on him. He did his tattoos, he got the money and poof, he’d be gone. So, we had a good time up there and then when I came back to work at Tattoo Mania, I made sure that Gill accepted both of us, so he was now working out of a regular street shop with me. He got to know Mark really well and he knew of our relationship and he was kind enough that when he hired me, he also hired my son so that we could still be together.

Well, of course, the fine line started in prison and the idea was that as fine as the line you could make, then the closer to realism you could get by doing a real fine line and shading off that line.

And then there was the whole thing when I had a younger son also. When he was 15, he was murdered. When that happened, I fell apart, like I just plunged myself into drug addiction and I didn’t care. I didn’t even care if I died, and I felt terrible because my son Isaiah, we both kind of collapsed. So I ended up going to prison, and Isaiah ended up in the neighborhood tattooing in a garage. I remember in this part of the prison, it was Folsom Prison. The oldest part of Folsom Prison is called the Five Block and there is this big old sign and they’re saying that since 1878 or something like that. It said, “This is where many of California’s fallen men have a boat,” or something like that, and I was just like, man, that’s what I am.

As far as I’ve gone in my life with tattooing, working on movies and being married, and owning my own business, here I am in prison. So when I got out, that’s when Mark was supporting me. I still had a little bit of trouble. I started using again when I got out and this time, I was on parole. I got diagnosed before as having drug-induced congestive heart failure. I mean I was in prison, I was taking the medication and stuff, so it didn’t bother me, but when I got out and I started using again, I started feeling really sick and I didn’t let anybody know. I couldn’t lay down right and I was short of breath all the time so I was getting really sick.

So when I got arrested again, and now I had a parole violation and everything, the withdrawals nearly killed me. So when I was in there, I had three heart attacks. I had two heart attacks and I was in the hospital and I was all skinny, I couldn’t lie down. I couldn’t walk. I was in a wheelchair. I couldn’t lay back to sleep because I couldn’t breathe. I was gasping for air. My chest was in constant pain. I remember the jail doctor just looking at me and saying, “I don’t see how you can go on without a heart transplant.” And I seriously thought I was going to die. I remember I didn’t want Isaiah to come and visit me. I didn’t want anybody to know. Not even Mark, nobody knew how bad I was.

I remembered a Bible story of one of the kings, a prophet came to him and told him that his time was up, he was going to die. And so he went to God and he asked God for more time, and God gave him 15 more years. It’s a Jewish story. So I always had that story in my mind and I remember I wanted to talk to God. I don’t want to just get on my knees and say a prayer. I wanted to talk to God. The only place I could be alone was in the upstairs shower room. I remember I had to go up these two small flights of stairs, and it took me like half an hour just to get up there. It was like Jacob’s ladder, climbing Jacob’s ladder. I was just pulling myself up, stuggling.

So when I got up there, I talked to God and I said, “God, I know I can’t make any more promises to you. Every promise I’ve ever made, I broke, but all I’m asking is for a little more time. I don’t want to die in here like this. I don’t want to die a failure and leave my son out there without me being an example to him. And so the next morning, I had a heart attack and they were rushing me to the hospital and gave me the nitroglycerin and hooking me up and everything. Even though I was in pain, my chest and everything, and my arm was numb, I felt different. I didn’t feel like I was going to die anymore and I started joking around with the ambulance driver and stuff telling him “just get me to the hospital safe and I will give you a tattoo when I get out” and stuff like that.

So I was in the hospital for two weeks and the doctors said, “Yes, we’re going to send you back to jail. It looks like the meds that we’re giving you are really working.” I was taking like 15 different meds. So when I went back to the jail, I could walk, and then I started feeling better and every Tuesday, they would take me back to the hospital and they’d check me. So, after about a month, the doctors listened to my heart and stuff and then I was telling him, “When I was doing push-ups...” He goes, “Push-ups? You do push-ups?” I was going, yes. He goes, “How many push-ups you could do?” I said I could do 25 now.

He goes, “Let me see you do a couple of push-ups.” And I got down there and I busted out 10 push-ups and he’s going, “You know what? I’m going to bring you up and have you and do all the echogram and that blood test and everything all over again.” So then I went back for all the tests and then the following Tuesday when I went back, there’s all these doctors and interns there and each one had a turn listening to my heart and looking at my charts and all that stuff.

So when they left, the one doctor is going, “You have to excuse my colleagues. A lot of us have heard of people’s hearts healing, repairing themselves like this but none of us have ever seen it. And now, he wants to show me my chart. He’s going, “Basically, your heart was like this, enlarged like this and it was beating erratically and your lungs and your liver were in failure because you weren’t getting any oxygen to your body and now, your heart has gone back to normal size and it’s beating at 30% which is normal.”

And I told him, “You know what? I prayed to God.” He was a Jewish doctor and I was like, “I prayed to God and I think He healed my body. He gave me more time.” He goes, “Well, I think your body has healed your heart and your heart has given you more time.” And I was like, well, whatever, whatever people think, it doesn’t matter. I know I was on my deathbed, and this was five years ago so I was given another chance. And I haven’t used. I’ve been clean since then. I haven’t taken a drink, haven’t used. I’m focused. People, all these artists everywhere are telling me that I’m doing the best work that I’ve ever done. I’ve been an example to my son.

So, if I die tomorrow, I thank God for that time to get my life back together and to show everybody that I could be a success. That I could be a great artist and my son could be a great artist.

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