How East L.A. Tattoo Legend Freddy Negrete Helped Chicano Gang Tattoos Evolve Into a Beloved Art Form

Freddy Negrete tattoos NBA player DeAndre Jordan.EXPAND
Freddy Negrete tattoos NBA player DeAndre Jordan.
Damon Kidwell

You may think your favorite artist is an O.G. of the tattoo world. But compared with Freddy Negrete, almost everyone else is still a rookie. As one of the most experienced and influential tattoo artists in the world, Negrete was already making a name for himself before many of today’s top tattooers could walk.

When Negrete began tattooing professionally around 40 years ago — having discovered and perfected the art in a variety of Southern California juvenile detention facilities — the fine-line, black-and-gray style of tattooing didn’t exist in the United States, at least not outside of its penitentiaries. But that all changed when the young tattooer finished his time in lockup and began working alongside fellow legends “Good Time” Charlie Cartwright and Jack Rudy in East L.A. 

“In the ’60s and ’70s, tattooing was controlled by bikers, and they weren’t about to let any Chicano gangster just start tattooing,” Negrete says. “I was the first prominent Chicano gangster tattooer in East L.A., and I brought this style from the prisons that was different than they were doing. It didn't involve any color, so it seemed like it was easier, but when Ed Hardy brought me into the shop, people started to see it wasn't so easy because of how much detail went into it."

Over the last four decades, Negrete has watched the detailed, colorless style he brought to the masses grow into one of the most common looks in the world. Originally a part of East L.A.'s Chicano culture, top-notch black-and-gray tattooing now can be found everywhere from New York and San Diego to Australia and France.

After 60 years of  highs and lows — in the tattoo business, gang life and otherwise — Negrete has finally teamed up with author Steve Jones to release his life story in Smile Now, Cry Later: My Life in Black and Gray ($30, Seven Stories Press).

“There are several reasons I decided to [write a book] right now,” Negrete says. “One is the rise in interest of Chicano culture and what went down in the 1960s and ’70s, and that was me. The next one is prison life — people are interested in what takes place in the California penal system. And then, of course, there’s the tattoo history.”

The autobiography covers everything from Negrete’s rough upbringing in foster care to his rise in the tattoo world to the loss of one of his sons. In the process of writing and digging up photographs for the book, Negrete has, for the past two years, taken on the additional responsibility of curating one of the biggest tattoo-themed art shows in all of California, the Danny Trejo–hosted Tatuaje.

“Not so long ago, I met this guy Antonio Pelayo and he was putting on these art shows in East L.A.,” Negrete says. “He was always trying to get tattoo artists to do his other art shows because it was seeming to him like tattoo artists were some of the best artists, but none of them were ever interested. I started putting art in his shows, and then other tattoo artists started doing his shows, so he asked if I wanted to help him put on a show that was all tattoo artists.” 

Two years in — the most recent event was in late July — Tatuaje is already drawing hundreds of the top artists from all over the state. Big names such as Carlos Torres and Sergio Sanchez have work displayed on the walls of Plaza de la Raza, and there’s always plenty of music, food and drink to go around. Really, no one is better suited than Negrete to throw a massive annual gathering of elite tattoo artists.

While the tattoo industry is generally built on respecting one’s elders and the legacies left by those who came before, Negrete isn’t content to just coast on what he’s already done for the art form. Instead of hanging his hat — be it a Raiders baseball cap or his now-famous fedora — on an aspect of tattooing he’s permanently influenced, Negrete, who still works at West Hollywood's Shamrock Social Club, is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks.

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“Recently, you have guys like Carlos Torres, Bob Tyrrell and Nikko Hurtado, who are taking it to where it’s not even about the tattoos anymore but about the art,” Negrete says. “They’re the legends of this modern-day tattooing. There are so many great artists out there that I watch what they’re doing and I’ve had to take my art to the next level.”

That progression over the years has earned him a fiercely loyal clientele. From the most diehard collectors to first-timers, every person Negrete touches knows there’s no one with his knowledge or level of experience. Rather than focusing on building a tremendous Instagram following like so many modern tattooers, Negrete leaves most of the celebrity tattooing to Hollywood’s artists.

“I’ve tattooed my share of actors and rock stars and stuff like that, but the other guys like my son [Isaiah] Boo Boo [Negrete], Mark [Mahoney] and Doctor Woo,” Negrete says. “They do it more because I’m trying to do a different style. I’m trying to get more artistic with my tattoos and do big tattoos, but those other guys are taking tiny single-needle tattoos to another level.”

How East L.A. Tattoo Legend Freddy Negrete Helped Chicano Gang Tattoos Evolve Into a Beloved Art Form (2)
Seven Stories Press

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