Freddy Negrete sat in his dingy cell at LA's Central Juvenile Hall, where he had finally found peace. It was 1968, and his abusive foster parents often tried to beat the half-Mexican out of him. But suburban neighborhoods and schools and fists couldn't whitewash the East LA Chicano out of the 12-year-old. Fed up, Negrete ran away from his foster home until the jura caught up. They threw him in a cell with a 16-year-old whom Negrete kept staring at.
It was the first time he was face-to-face with a real Chicano gangster. Negrete had never seen someone so young inked with what were then called "prison-style" tattoos: stark, straight black lines creating ultra-lifelike images that represented heritage, artistry and toughness. Only vatos locos dared to wear them.
"I just thought [the tattoos] were so cool," Negrete says.
The tattoos—now called "black-and-gray" in the industry—had a level of detail and realism not found anywhere else in the tattooing world at the time. Done with handmade machines from Men's Central to Theo Lacy, Folsom to El Centro, the style's fine lines depicted everything from three-dot crosses to sombrero-wearing honeys, from a gang's name in Old English font to the Virgin of Guadalupe to intricately shaded tableaux straight out of the pages of Lowrider or Teen Angel. Mainstream tattooers dismissed them as a Chicano thing, even as gabachos in Southern California were beginning to notice their barrio beauty.
Before Negrete's first stint in juvie was over, he learned from his cellmate how to construct a makeshift machine by sticking a needle into the melted end of a toothbrush and dipping it in mascara. It served him well in la vida loca, as he worked on homies with San Gabriel's La Sangra or fellow inmates in the California Youth Authority's toughest pen, Tamarack. And his early mastery helped Negrete become a pioneer of one of the most unlikely success stories in the art world.
A style once exclusive to Mexican-American toughs, barely 50 years old, is now found just about everywhere on the globe, from Brazil to Russia to Australia to the Middle East to the chest of actor Danny Trejo. The genre is now so removed from its prison origins that most of its wearers don't even associate it with cholo culture. "Some people think that bold and brightly colored tattoos are cartoonish, and they want to wear a tattoo that feels more serious," says Evie Yapelli of Show Pigeon Tattoo in Orange. "Capturing that kind of thing in a fine-line black-and-gray piece feels respectful and timeless."
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Negrete's first shop was his apartment in Pico Rivera in the early 1970s. Business was good, but he quickly got word of a rival. "Everyone wanted their tattoos to look like they were done in prison, so there was one shop in East LA that was trying to do the prison-style tattoos," Negrete says. "The work that I saw from most of the guys who worked there just looked like traditional tattoos without the color, but there was this big hype from this guy named Huero. All these guys would come in to my apartment and show me tattoos that Huero did, and he knew what he was doing, so I would do some tattoos on guys and say, 'Now go show Huero these!'"
"Huero" ("white boy" in Mexican Spanish) was Jack Rudy, a former Marine who got his nickname by being the only white guy in Lynwood's barrio. Already a master of black-and-gray, he would soon become a cult figure for his "Rudy girls": big-eyed, big-lipped rucas that stood out in a tattooing world still stuck on cartoony pinups.
"I originally saw Freddy's work coming in off the street, and I was really impressed with it," says Rudy. "I would hear stories about him and how he was tattooing here one day and doing this the next, but I didn't care if he was a gangster because he was that good. As long as he wasn't a dope fiend or in prison, I wanted him on the [Good Time Charlie's] team."
Rudy and veteran biker tattooer Charlie Cartwright opened up the first Good Time Charlie's in East Los Angeles in 1975. They effectively cornered the market on professional "joint-style" tattoos, creating new machines and finer needles so artists could add more detail and further perfect the softer, more realistic art. With Negrete's street fame beginning to rival that of Good Time Charlie's, Rudy sent word to him to stop by so the two could meet.
"My first trip to Good Time Charlie's, I got the cold shoulder from everybody," Negrete says. The first thing he noticed was that one of his designs hung from the walls; it was a charra wearing a sombrero and shorts. No one believed he was the creator until Negrete pulled the original drawing from his notebook. But Cartwright kept to biker culture's then-bigoted code and refused to hire a Chicano, no matter how stellar his artwork. (Nowadays, the two get along just fine.)
"Then Good Time Charlie became a Christian and sold the shop to Ed Hardy [yes, that Ed Hardy], and Jack told Ed Hardy about me," Negrete says. "Ed Hardy realized he needed to get someone who could relate to all of the Chicano people in there, so Jack sent word to me again."
Rudy and Negrete worked side by side under Hardy's demanding eye until the two parted ways in 1980. Negrete became involved with everything from drugs and alcohol to religion to academia before rededicating himself to black-and-gray tattoos in the 1990s. But over the years, he had kept in touch with Rudy, who opened Good Time Charlie's Tattooland in Anaheim in 1985—"the fourth shop in all of Orange County, and that was a trip."
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While Negrete and Rudy were trying to earn a living throughout the 1980s and '90s, their work unknowingly served as the inspiration for a generation of young artists in Southern California. Black-and-gray—along with other fashion choices of Chicanos—were penetrating youth culture, from the Pendletons and Dickies favored by surf bros to the arched eyeliner and faux chola tattoos of Gwen Stefani.
This mainstreaming was crucial. Black-and-gray was historically anathema to traditional tattooists, as colorful American traditional designs had dominated the industry since World War II. Racial dynamics, though never openly discussed, created de facto segregation: white guys got "regular" tattoos, while black-and-grays were for Mexicans.
But a new wave of tattooers didn't care for the industry's past rivalries. "By the time I was, like, 15 or 16 years old, there was a small group of us who had all been influenced by guys like Freddy Negrete, Mark Mahoney and Jack [Rudy]," says Big Gus, who created the now-iconic "Fallen Angel" design of a tattooed woman in Día de los Muertos makeup and angel wings and starred on Spike TV's Tattoo Nightmares. "We were, like, this small group of individuals who would get together and just look at one another's work. We just wanted to take black-and-gray to another level."
What started as only a handful of artists—some known primarily by their nicknames, including Jose "Boxer" Lopez of Anaheim—quickly grew into a dozen. Instead of devolving into cliques, everyone contributed something different to the art form, be it a twist on a technique, an iconic design or a tidbit of information taken from a tattooer with more experience.
Anaheim native Steve Soto is one of the godfathers of modern black-and-gray, particularly the smooth, more linear flow seen in many artists' work today. But 15 years ago, Soto (who now runs Goodfellas Tattoo Studio in Orange) was a kid looking at the way artists such as Lopez—who was just beginning to get worldwide fame—had begun adding artistic elements such as the use of shadows and light straight out of a Rembrandt. At that time, Soto's only goal was to be as good as the other Anaheim-based tattooers, not thinking it would ever spread too far beyond his city. "People didn't think it was possible before," he says.
"When I first started, there were the few years that I called the glory years," says Franco Vescovi of Vatican Studios in Lake Forest. "The closest shop south was Laguna Tattoo, and after that, it was Oceanside, and the closest shops north were all the shops in Anaheim. It was great. We used to be busy all the time."
In the early 2000s, black-and-gray went from getting mainstreamed to helping to normalize tattoo culture. By the time Miami Ink brought the art form into every suburban living room across the country in 2005, Vatican Studios was just as important of a shop as Good Time Charlie's.
Slowly, many of the elite black-and-gray tattooers began to migrate down the 405 from Los Angeles and into the South Bay and OC to capitalize on eager clients. Carlos Torres—now as identified with black-and-gray as Rudy and Negrete—runs San Pedro's Timeline Gallery. Lopez has Lowrider Tattoo Studios in Fountain Valley. Tim Hendricks is now the head honcho at Fullerton's Classic Tattoo, and Big Gus recently opened up Collective Ink Gallery in Garden Grove.
Soon, the best artists were invited across the world for conventions and seminars on colorless work. Soto recently returned from tattooing in Israel, while Torres just got back from a convention visit to Mexico. "The fact that all of this stuff was kind of looked down upon back then compared to now, when you can have a painting hanging in some museums, is surreal," Torres says. "It almost brings a tear to the eye just because we never thought it would lead to that—or that it could lead to that."
Before becoming a tattoo artist, Torres worked at LAX, fueling planes. He'd look at the jumbo jets and wonder where they were going and who was on them. Now, his tattoo machines are the passport that take him everywhere. "One time, I went to Thailand when I was real young, and they were playing West Coast hip-hop in all of the bars," Torres says. "I took a lot of pride in that because it came from our back yard. Now, you can go all around the world, and it's crazy to see that there are guys in Scandinavia and Australia doing amazing work that was influenced by the stuff that started here."
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"Black-and-gray tattooing and Chicano culture go hand in hand," Soto says, smiling. "They both came out of here, and they'll always be tied together. It's all West Coast—Southern Cali—and Orange County has created some of the best and most famous black-and-gray artists."
When Negrete first saw his cellmate's prison tattoos, only people who spent time in the pinta could get them; anyone else who tried to get them and wasn't about the gang life would be dismissed as a chavala. But once Negrete, Rudy and their acolytes spread the form outside the pen and the barrios, the tattoos became gentrified, much like taco trucks and gangsta rap. The term "prison-style" became "Chicano-style" or "West Coast-style" before evolving into "fine-line black-and-gray" or "black-and-gray realism," and more and more collectors and artists from all ethnicities and backgrounds wanted in—from Dustin Yip of Cypress' Skanvas Tattoo and Joel Bones at Gold Rush Tattoo in Costa Mesa to Russia's Dmitriy Troshin and the U.K.'s Jak Connolly
The Chicano gang culture of old is barely associated with the form anymore, which makes some of its practicioners wince. "A lot of the older tattoos had this spirit with them," Vescovi says. "They were expressing poverty, gangs, poetry—everything the old-school gang members loved. When it came to prayer hands or a Mother Mary, it had more meaning back then. It was because some dude's brother got shot or his family was praying for him."
In fact, black-and-gray is so removed from its origins that a new generation of tattoo fans know the style more for its forays into geometric designs such as mandalas or Celtic crosses or the macabre (skulls, sorcerers, devils and the like). They're not concerned with what Rudy or Negrete or Soto or Torres pioneered; they want something that'll freak people out.
One of the masters of horror black-and-gray is Bob Tyrrell, a Michigan native who works out of West Hollywood's Shamrock Social Club alongside Negrete and Collective Ink Gallery with Big Gus any time there's snow on the ground in the Midwest. After spending about 15 years pursuing heavy-metal dreams, Tyrrell realized that his artistic talents and love of all things rock & roll made him a perfect candidate to be a tattooer. He began at the age of 34 and learned a world-class black-and-gray skill set from Midwestern tattooing hero Tom Renshaw before becoming enamored with the beautifully terrifying style of New York City's Paul Booth.
He's nowadays named alongside Booth as the best horror inksters around. But Tyrrell loves working in Southern California and learning from the OG masters. "I'm always trying to come up with something new, and I think everybody out here has such a distinct style that you know it before you even see the name on it," Tyrrell says. I think there's really something you can learn from so many people out here."
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One of the most common debates in tattoo shops these days—and yet another influence of black-and-gray—has to do with the tools of the trade. Coil machines have been the standard for professional tattooers for decades because of tradition and durability, but thanks largely to Vescovi's company, Bishop Rotary, rotary machines are rising in popularity because of the ubiquity of black-and-gray. Their intricate construction and price point—a rudimentary one starts around $400—is far removed from the sewing needle Negrete poked into a melted toothbrush almost a half-century ago.
"Rotaries and coils are like Macintosh and PCs," Vescovi explains. "People who make rotaries are like Steve Jobs; they made a machine that's easier to just work. You don't have to worry about if it doesn't work. When it comes to black-and-gray, if you have a machine that doesn't hit the same every time, that lightest shade of gray might not stay in the skin. With a rotary, it's the same amount of torque every time."
This modernization is upping the black-and-gray standards for everyone. Negrete is doing some of the best work of his career since making the conscious effort to learn the tricks of people such as Torres, even if the younger artist is still in such awe of Negrete that he can barely get a sentence out. "To actually finally meet Freddy was kind of like meeting a hero," Torres says. "I'm still really, really intimidated when I talk with him or Charlie [Cartwright] or Jack [Rudy]. Tattooing celebrities and stuff, I don't get star-struck, but [with] those guys, I get star-struck."
It's a popularity Negrete and Rudy never imagined back in their East LA days. "There are a lot of good tattoos happening out there, but there are a lot of people putting on shit tattoos, too," Rudy says from one of the many plush chairs in the boardroom of Sullen Art Collective's new Seal Beach headquarters.
Negrete is more charitable. "Some people say, 'Oh, you're a legend!' but I don't see myself that way," he says. "Guys like Carlos Torres and Nikko Hurtado, they're the new legends. I'm trying to keep up with them."