The tattoo has made its mark on mainstream culture. In 2011 Mattel released an inked Barbie doll. And the Pew Research Center reports that over thirty percent of young Americans now sport a tattoo. The “black and gray” tattoo scene, once confined to Chicano culture and its symbols, has taken off too.
Freddy Negrete is seen as the pioneer of Chicano tattoo culture, or what tattoo artists refer to as the “back and grey” scene. No color. Tattoos that look like they came out of prison—revolutionary type, Aztec art, religious symbols, girls. Negrete began tattooing professionally at Good Time Charlie’s in East Los Angeles in 1976. Before that, he tattooed in prison and out of his home. “When I started, I was the only Hispanic anywhere,” Negrete recalls. “I did tattoo shows. I was the only one. No one would give me a chance, but Ed Hardy and Jack Rudy did, and that started the door to be opened, and the style getting big.”
Thanks to Negrete, younger Latino tattoo artists were able to break into the scene. Like NB40 of Tuff City Tattoos in the Bronx. NB40 started with the basics of black and grey, looking deeply into the symbols and the cultures that produced them. Then he added his own artistic flair. For instance, he adapted the traditional “California script,” used by gangs, into a “Wild Style” evoking graffiti, with a characteristic East Coast feel.
“A lot of people always want to let another person know where they are from. So many people are proud of their country—Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Dominicans, Peruvians, Colombians, Cubans,” NB40 observes. “No one really denies where they are from.” Not anymore. Negrete smiles at all the change he’s seen in his career. “Now you go to a tattoo show, and there are the Latinos tattooing. A big majority have found something they can do artistically and make a living and share in the American dream by owning their own tattoo shop. So it’s been a good thing for them.”
“Nothing new as far as the imagery goes,” Negrete comments. “It’s just done better, more realistic, different artists finding different ways of doing the same style.” It’s going to be rising Latino tattoo talent, like Antonio Mejia and Chuey Quintanar of Goodtime Charlie’s, that will continue to evolve what Negrete started.
Photos courtesy of Freddy Negrete & NB40. Special thanks to Billy Burke