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Chicanx Tattoos: From Prison Badges to Venerated Latinx Culture

Something happened when “Miami Ink” premiered on TLC in July 2005: tattoos became one of the biggest, if subtle, media fixations we’ve ever had, quickly becoming ubiquitous in ad campaigns, runway shows, fashion spreads, TV and movie characters — in short, everywhere.

Freddy Negrete Tattooing | Courtesy of the Artist
Freddy Negrete tattooing | Courtesy of the Artist

Twenty-five years ago, you rarely found ink on people who weren’t prison inmates, bikers, gang-members or sailors. Now all of a sudden they were popping up on models, celebrities, bankers, office workers and executives. Tattoos have spread to every socio-economic walk of life. In fact, as of 2016, over 36 percent of Americans 18-25 had at least one tattoo on their bodies.

The most popular tattoos (or at least elements of them) were Chicanx-style. Despite adorning the flesh of some of the richest white people in the world, the technique behind those black and gray shaded portraits and photorealistic images was actually forged in SoCal prisons by Latinx inmates using homemade tattoo guns made out of cassette player motors. Known back in the day as prison tattoos (the industry now respectfully refers to them as black and grays), they’ve definitely come a long way from the barrios of Southern California, proudly inked on celebrities like Justin Bieber, Johnny Depp, David Beckham, Adam Levine, Travis Barker, and too many to even name. For the third year running, Los Angeles is playing host to Antonio Pelayo’s Tatuaje, a one-night only festival celebrating Latinx tattoo culture that draws an average of 4,000 attendees each year.

Watch Shizu Saldamando, whose works are in the National Portrait Gallery, ink her works on skin in Artbound Season 2's second episode.

Once upon a time, before he became the veritable father of mainstream Latinx tattoo art, Freddy Negrete sat in a cell at L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, doing what he always did: drawing. It’s a skill he picked up from his father and uncle, who were also self-taught artists. Prison artists, specifically. It was 1968, and before the decade was over, Negrete would be in and out of every sort of juvenile detention program in Southern California, where, mostly, there’s nothing to do but wait. Or draw. “You spend a lot of time drawing,” Negrete explained.

In particular, he was drawing black and gray sketches inspired by the Chicano art movement that surrounded him in his community, depicting three-dot crosses, Old English lettering, saints, sombreros and images ubiquitous in lowrider culture. Those kinds of visuals were half of the Latinx tattoo style. The other half was the use of thin lines and black and gray shading to create photorealistic images — something that no other school of tattooing was doing at the time. Back in those days, there were the mainstream, “thick lined” and “cartoonish” tattoos that hardly anyone was getting, and the thin-line black and gray Chicano tattoos that everyone in Negrete’s community seemed to have. “You would even see people’s grandparents with tattoos,” he says. “It was accepted back then, but not as much as it is now.”

It’s in that cell in L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall that Negrete came face to face with a real Chicano gangster, only a little older than him, and covered with more tattoos than most cons twice his age.

Freddy Negrete | Courtesy of the Artist
Freddy Negrete | Courtesy of the artist

This cellmate taught Negrete how to create a pen by sticking a needle into the melted end of a toothbrush and using mascara as ink, and Negrete was hooked, poking his his first tattoo onto his arm as soon as he could. Already a skilled artist, Negrete spent every moment in jail practicing his tattooing technique on his fellow inmates. As the saying goes, it only takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something, and Negrete didn’t have much to do but draw tattoos. It was illegal back then too, “but most of the guards, they just turned their back on that,” Negrete explained. “As long as we didn’t kill each other.”

There was actually a network inside the prison system of tattoo artists, and they all shared tips and designs (what they called “patterns”) with each other through the pen pal program, building followings but also propagating techniques and knowledge. Among the juvies, Negrete quickly built fame around his skill. One of his most recognized drawings was of a charra girl in Daisy Dukes. He also did his own take of the famous comedy and tragedy masks playing off the old tune “Smile Now, Cry Later.” Someone in Susanville Prison developed the first homemade tattoo gun using the motor of a cassette tape, and when Negrete made his own, it completely changed his game.

Negrete had spent his entire life up to that point doing drawings on paper, but took naturally to working with an ink needle. Many of his fellow tattoo artists in the prison system, however, had never spent much time on drawing or design prior to picking up a tattoo gun for the first time. “I met so many amazing artists in that time,” Negrete reflected. And for many of them, skin had been the first medium they had ever worked on.

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After he got out of the joint, Negrete set up shop in his own apartment and quickly turned tattooing into a full-time career, thanks to the incredible demand for prison tattoos. His work caught the attention of Good Time Charlie, the owner of a tattoo shop in East L.A. of the same name. Charlie was trying to corner the prison-tattoo market as well. It wasn’t long before Jack “Huero” Rudy, one of Charlie’s most popular tattoo artists, set up a meeting with Negrete. When he walked into the shop one of the first things he saw was the charra girl with Daisy Dukes that he drew, hanging on their wall. He explained it was his design, and the staff didn’t believe him until he pulled the original drawing out of his portfolio book.

Freddy Negrete Tattooing | Courtesy of the Artist
Freddy Negrete Tattooing | Courtesy of the Artist

What seemed like something that would have gotten Negrete hired on the spot led nowhere. Good Time Charlie had no interest in hiring a cholo gangster. That is, until he turned Christian, and sold his tattoo shop to Ed Hardy. Rudy made the introduction, and Hardy gave Negrete his first job in a studio.

As Good Time Charlie got busier and busier, it wasn’t long before people started seeing Negrete and Rudy’s work (and work inspired by it) across the nation — even the world. It was the dawn of MTV, and suddenly there were world-famous rock stars in music videos covered in black and gray ink. And there were millions of people who wanted to be like them.

Including the next generation of artists that would rise to fame in the next decade — most notably among them, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt fame, with her arched eyeliner and chola-style tattoos. Stefani had (and continues to have) a pretty big cultural impact. By the turn of the Millennium, tattoos were practically mainstream, with Inked Magazine rolling out in 2004 and “Miami Ink” taking to the airwaves the very next year to premiere the first wave of tattoo artist celebrities: Ami James, Chris Nunez and Kat Von D to name a few. By the time Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne and others started getting inked on a regular basis, tattoos, especially the black and gray photorealistic variety of Chicano heritage had gone global, barely recognizable (at least to the masses) as the creative heart of Chicano culture.

Flash forward nearly two decades to Antonio Pelayo, who, without realizing it was solving a problem. By then, he created an event to celebrate Latinx tattoo culture and raise awareness of the art form's roots: Tatuaje Tattoo Festival. The annual event began its run in 2015, and has at least doubled in size since.

Pelayo has always had two careers running concurrently. On one track, he’s an insanely talented illustrator that draws, very similar to the Chicanx tattoo style. The other career track is as a producer creating events that celebrate various aspects of Latinx art and culture.

How he became an event producer happened by accident, but it was always a natural evolution. Born in Glendale, CA, he spent much of his childhood in Mexico, leading Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations of several hundred people at the young age of 13 and 14. When he returned to the States, he automatically found himself falling into leadership roles in every facet of his life.

Early on in his career, he spent a lot of time hustling to get his work shown in different venues around LA, mostly bars, with the occasional more traditional art spaces. “I had a lot of people asking me for advice about how their kids could get into art,” he said. Realizing he could help, he started referring friends to the venues he had exhibited at so they could show their work, which only brought more artists into this life. The network got so big that eventually realized he could branch out on his own and produce his own art showcase.

To this day, the biggest one he produces is El Velorio, a Dia de Los Muertos event that, among other things, showcases hundreds of Latinx artists from Southern California. Freddy Negrete was the first tattoo artist to approach Pelayo about showcasing his works on paper and canvas. And when Pelayo said yes, Negrete brought more into the fold.

Tatuaje Festival
Tatuaje Festival | Courtesy of Antonio Pelayo
Tatuaje Festival | Courtesy of Antonio Pelayo
Tatuaje Festival | Courtesy of Antonio Pelayo

Pelayo admits he was not very involved or even aware of tattoo culture until ten years ago, when he got his first tattoo. Like many Americans, he became more aware of this around the time “Miami Ink” rose to prominence. Since then, he’s gotten two tattoos on his forearms, and allowed his girlfriend, a tattoo artist herself, to practice her skills on his legs (she did a great job). The black and white illustration technique he’s mastered on paper also lends itself well to Chicano-style tattoo, so his designs have been used on skin on more than few occasions.

His most epic tattoo, however, is one of his smallest. When his son was just two years old, he drew a smiley face, and Pelayo left it up on the refrigerator for nearly two decades since. To commemorate his son’s first professional art showcase, Pelayo got that drawing tattooed it on his hand. “When people ask me about this one,” Pelayo says, “it actually makes some of them cry.”

Anthony Pelayo
Antonio Pelayo | Courtesy of Antonio Pelayo

As Pelayo became more and more familiar with the history of Chicanx tattoos, he realized there was something here that could power an entire separate event. And that became the basis for Tatuaje. 2017 is the third year of the event, and it’s going to be bigger than ever, with Danny Trejo returning as host, and Los Lobos, a Grammy-award winning band and one of the biggest in the Latinx music world, is the headlining act.

With Tatuaje, Pelayo might not be raising awareness of Chicano tattoo art, either — but rather tapping into an interest that’s always been there. El Velorio is still his biggest annual event, but Pelayo notes,” The first year I did El Velorio, I only had 500 attendees. The first year I did Tatuaje, I had 2,000.”

Since its inception in 2015, Negrete has been curating the art portion of Tatuaje, personally selecting hundreds of professional tattoo artists to exhibit their works on paper and canvas, many of them for the first time ever. “I’ve seen a lot of good artwork,” says Negrete. “Most tattoo artists are really into their tattooing [even though they have so much talent in other areas.] It’s good for them to show their work like this.” Johnny Quintana, one of the most famous Chicanx tattoo artists in LA, has actually flourished as a painter since first exhibiting with Pelayo’s events.

It’s been a long cycle, but the evolution of Chicanx tattoo art seems to have finally come full circle. After going mainstream and becoming a visual style and technique used all over the world, Chicanx tattoos have now returned to and become a pillar of the community that originally spawned it.

Chicanx tattoos, and tattoos in general, will never go fully, fully mainstream though. “It always has an element of darkness to it,” says Negrete. “It will always have the fire of something underground and special, because it hurts.”

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