Although some tattoo artists may feel as if they were born to be in the industry, Isaiah Negrete literally was. At the time of his birth, the Shamrock Social Club artist’s last name was already known throughout the tattoo community thanks to the legacy of his father, Freddy, and it didn’t take long for the younger Negrete to decide he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and work alongside him.
“I’ve always liked art, so with my dad being so good at it and me being exposed to it, there really wasn’t much else I could’ve done,” Negrete says. “I dropped out of school in ninth grade when my dad had a tattoo shop in Santa Barbara, so I started tattooing. It was just something I loved to do, and I saw a future in it for myself. The doors were open for me because of my dad.”
By the age of 14, Negrete — nicknamed “Boo Boo” after Yogi Bear’s famous companion — was tattooing professionally in his dad’s shop. Considering that he’d been surrounded by some of the best tattoos in history since birth — and that the tattoo art of the ’90s wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is today — the teenage artist’s tattoos were certainly good enough for the hundreds of clients who would stumble across the Santa Barbara shop. After all, Negrete’s biggest projects were on his homies back in the streets of L.A. rather than a random vacationer.
“I wasn’t nervous at first, but I was really excited,” Negrete says. “I just jumped in the deep end because my homeboys would want big pieces on their back or their stomach, so I didn’t start with anything small. There was a lot of bad art coming because people weren’t trained properly, but my tattooing was decent when I started because I knew about both art and tattooing.”
But while starting that young would be a massive blessing for some artists, the second-generation tattooer had trouble keeping his head on straight as a teenager. Through the age of 17, Negrete would find himself getting tired of the small-town life of Santa Barbara and longing to go back home to his friends. Unfortunately, his habit of running up and down the Southern California coast would come to a screeching halt not long before his 18th birthday when his illicit lifestyle finally caught up with him.
“When I was 17, I was on the run because they were going to send me to [Youth Authority], so I went and stayed with my mom until I turned 18 so I could just go to County for like two months,” Negrete says. “I came back when I was 18, and they must’ve known I was here because they raided the shop on Christmas. Even though my dad kept telling them I wasn’t there, they came in through the back, so I knew I had to go.”
Not long after Negrete’s arrest, his father’s nasty divorce led to the closing of the shop despite his best efforts to keep it open. Without much reason to stay in California, the father-son duo moved to a shop in Hawaii. There, Isaiah realized that although his dad’s clientele would come to him for his picture-perfect black and gray realism, he could make a better living by simply sticking with the pre-made flash designs hanging on the walls of the shop. When he missed life in L.A. enough to convince Freddy to move back and tattoo at Hollywood’s Tattoo Mania (the shop famous for tattooing celebrities like Tupac Shakur at the time), Negrete kept that same walk-in mentality in order to pay the bills.
“I became a workhorse and just did whatever when people would come in wanting something off the wall,” Negrete says. “It was a lot of tribal and butterflies, but they were quick and good money. I would tell people my style was ‘off the wall’ because it was whatever they wanted 'off the wall.'”
Just when it seemed the Negrete clan had put their troubles behind them, Isaiah’s brother died in 2004, Freddy went back to prison and the entire family fell apart. Alone and unmotivated after losing both his brother and father, Isaiah Negrete stopped working at Tattoo Mania and began tattooing out of houses and running with his old friends. Within a couple of years, the experienced young artist and his old man were given a second chance when famous tattooer Mark Mahoney left Tattoo Mania to open up the Shamrock Social Club on the Sunset Strip.
Although he was happy to be back to working in a top-notch shop again, Negrete couldn’t help but feel that even after a decade at various shops with his father, his flash-based style wasn’t helping him improve as much as he would’ve expected.
“I wasn’t excelling, and with my dad being so good, I started to wonder if I was even his real son,” Negrete says. “My dad makes it look so easy and so effortless that it’s kind of hard to learn from him. I would try to do things like he does them, and it just wasn’t happening. But being able to work with my dad, there were a lot of other tattoo artists I could learn from at every shop.”
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Around the same time as Negrete's return to the professional side of tattooing, the entire industry was going through some major changes. Shows like Miami Ink had just put the art form into every household in America and made people’s connections to tattoos more personal — meaning there were fewer and fewer clients coming in just for some flash off the wall. After realizing that he’d never escape his dad’s shadow if he pursued the same realistic black and gray style, Negrete took a page out of Mahoney’s playbook and started shrinking his designs down to a minuscule level.
At first, fitting a detailed portrait or image into a quarter-sized tattoo seemed damn near impossible — and some critics still don’t believe tiny tattoos hold up as well over time — but after dedicating the second decade of his tattooing career to perfecting the style, Negrete has finally found a way to make a name for himself in the industry.
“I tried to get known for bigger pieces, but I was still doing a lot of walk-ins and smaller stuff, so I decided I was going to make that stuff look as good as I can,” Negrete says. “I’ve always struggled with doing big portraits, so I started doing those a lot smaller, too. At first, doing them so small was a challenge, but now it’s become a lot easier for me. People are like, ‘How do you do them that small?’ and I just ask them how they do it so big. It just comes easy to me for some reason.”