What's Black And Gray And Inked All Over? : Code Switch Black-and-gray tattoos have become increasingly popular over the last four decades. But many people don't realize that the style has its roots in Chicano art, Catholic imagery and "prison ingenuity." (Yes, they were called Prison-Style tattoos for a reason.) Freddy Negrete, a pioneer in the industry, started tattooing fellow inmates in the early 1970s. And while he's no longer tatting people up with guitar strings and ballpoint pens, he's still using some of the same techniques he mastered back in the day.

What's Black And Gray And Inked All Over?

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FREDDY NEGRETE: These are tattoos that I did when I was in prison.


On yourself?

NEGRETE: Yeah. Like I did this arm.

MERAJI: Because you're right handed, so you did you left arm (laughter)?

NEGRETE: Exactly (laughter). I had other people do this arm. But the hands in the handcuffs with a butterfly on top...

MERAJI: You did that yourself?

NEGRETE: Mmhmm (ph). The butterfly represents freedom.


SUNNY AND THE SUNLINERS: (Singing) Smile now, cry later.

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: Gene, imagine yourself jumping in your low rider Impala, blasting some oldies like "Smile Now, Cry Later" by Sunny and the Sunliners and holding your ruca close with your right arm that's all tatted up.

DEMBY: That sounds like how I live my life - actually, not true at all. I don't drive. I don't have any tats. I don't even know what a ruca is. What is a ruca?

MERAJI: (Laughter) A ruca is a girlfriend. It's like old school cholo slang for girlfriend.

DEMBY: Oh, OK. Yeah. I can do that part.

MERAJI: You know I don't have tattoos either.

DEMBY: Which is surprising. I would think of all the people on our team, you will be the most likely to have tattoos.

MERAJI: I'm going to take that as a compliment.

DEMBY: Yeah. No. I meant it in the most complimentary way possible.

MERAJI: One in five adults in the U.S. have tattoos.

DEMBY: That's crazy.

MERAJI: I'm talking about tattoos right now because I went to do this story at the Natural History Museum. They had this tattoo exhibition, and it was 5,000 years of tattoo history.


MERAJI: And I learned something super code switchy (ph) about a type of tattoo called black and gray.


MERAJI: I think you've seen these tattoos - portraits of friends or family members who've passed. They look like almost like black-and-white photos.

DEMBY: Oh, I think I know which ones you're talking about...

MERAJI: You know what I'm talking about.

DEMBY: Like, lots and lots of details.

MERAJI: Or like these Catholic statue tattoos where you can see...


MERAJI: ...Like, the folds in the robes.

DEMBY: Right. Right.

MERAJI: Lettering - old English lettering - that kind of thing. Think Pac's thug life tattoo but nicer.

DEMBY: Nicer than Pac's thug life tattoo, which doesn't take much. This is some West Coast stuff.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. It's totally West Coast stuff. And I learned that Chicano tattoo artists and Mexican-Americans in east LA are actually responsible for changing the tattoo game world-wide with this style - black-and-gray style - like the guy we heard at the very start of this episode.

NEGRETE: Hi. I'm Freddy Negrete, tattoo artist, here at Shamrock Social Club on the world famous Sunset Strip.

DEMBY: Freddy Negrete, that's a dope name.

MERAJI: He's in his 60s now...


MERAJI: ...And he's still tattooing at the Shamrock Social Club. I met up with him there. The rich and famous have been tattooed there. We're talking about Angelina Jolie...


MERAJI: ...Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp. But on the day that I went, Freddy was actually getting ready to tattoo a 22-year-old who works on an offshore supply ship. Zach Osbourne (ph) came all the way from Louisiana - all the way from the Gulf - for a Freddy Negrete black-and-gray tattoo.

How did you choose him?

ZACH OSBOURNE: Internet - Instagram mainly.

MERAJI: And you liked his work?

OSBOURNE: Definitely - clean lines, good shading.

MERAJI: What do you know about this style of tattoo, like the history of it? Do you know anything about it?

OSBOURNE: No. History wise, no.

DEMBY: But where does the history of black-and-gray tattoos come from?

MERAJI: Here's the short answer from Freddy.

NEGRETE: Prison ingenuity.


MERAJI: Gene, the story of black-and-gray is all tied up with Freddy's life story. It's about making beautiful things from the ugliest of circumstances.

DEMBY: Ooh. Shereen, color me intrigued. Oh. I guess black-and-gray me intrigued, I suppose.

MERAJI: Stay with us.


MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. Gene, can you read a quote for me?

DEMBY: I got you, homie. (Reading) I displayed my ink with pride, a mix of Aztec Mexican revolutionary and cholo imagery. These were our campfire stories, our myths, the marks of our culture. And once marked, you were marked for life.

MERAJI: I love that quote. That's from Freddy Negrete's memoir, "Smile Now, Cry Later: Guns, Gangs, And Tattoos - My Life In Black And Gray." And, Gene, Freddy is marked for life and all over his body. On the day that I went to the Shamrock Social Club to interview him, he was wearing a T-shirt so I could see the menagerie of faded tattoos that are on both of his arms. And I asked him to tell me about the ones he did on himself, the ones he did on his left arm.

NEGRETE: This is a Japanese writing for a Mexican saying called, mi vida es un sueno - my life is a dream. This is my old gang tag.


NEGRETE: Loko Coyote.


NEGRETE: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Loko with a K.

NEGRETE: Just different things. The boxing gloves. It's a box of that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You did this one on yourself?

NEGRETE: Yeah, even this.

MERAJI: I am trying to imagine doing that because one of them is on your elbow.


MERAJI: Did you have a mirror?

NEGRETE: No. I was in a cell. Well, we had a mirror but it's just a piece of metal in the wall (laughter).

MERAJI: How old were you when you did those?

NEGRETE: Probably 17, 18.

MERAJI: They're amazing.

NEGRETE: Did them with a homemade machine - prison cell tattoo machine.

MERAJI: How do you feel about them over the years?

NEGRETE: I wouldn't change them. I've thought about just going over them, making them look fresh and new. Maybe I might do that. I don't know. But they're my tattoos. They're a part of me.

MERAJI: So at this point, Gene, you know Freddy's done time.

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

MERAJI: A lot of time. He was in juvenile detention facilities starting when he was in junior high. He was in and out of lockup as an adult, and he says that's really where black-and-gray style originated.

NEGRETE: Prison ingenuity.


DEMBY: Prison ingenuity. Yeah, like, how do you even do this in prison? But before we - before we get into the history of the tattoos, like, what is Freddy's deal? You just said that he was in jail. He got locked up. Like, what is his story?

MERAJI: Oh, he has a fascinating backstory. He's from LA, OK? He was born in east LA, and his parents met in this neighborhood called Boyle Heights, which is a neighborhood that's more than 90 percent Latino these days, and those Latinos are mostly Mexican. But back in the '50s, there was also a pretty robust Jewish community there.


MERAJI: And one of the main streets that runs through Boyle Heights is now called Cesar Chavez, but it used to be called Brooklyn Avenue.

NEGRETE: My mom was a Jewish immigrant living in Boyle Heights. My dad was a pachuco gangster. She got kicked out of the family and everything for being with a Hispanic guy, but I like that bitter history...


NEGRETE: ...You know, and that that's - my mother's Jewish, my dad's Mexican. My mother died when I was pretty young - actually 14 or so, and I was in jail or something when she died. But I didn't even meet her till later on, so...


NEGRETE: Yeah. Because they went to prison. I was in foster care. My dad went to prison for robbing a depot - a train depot or something like that. And my mother went to prison for killing some girl. So she shot her with a zip gun. A zip gun was like a homemade gun that they would use in the streets back then.

DEMBY: That's a really rough childhood.

MERAJI: Yeah. And he told me his foster home experience was terrible, too.

DEMBY: Like, my sister and I - at least they kept us together. We were happy about that, but, you know, it's so - you go through a lot of things. You never get to feel, you know, the love and things that, you know, being in foster homes. And then we were in a foster home that was pretty abusive, you know? - that they used to beat us. It was a white foster home, so they were trying to beat the Mexican out of us (laughter).

DEMBY: Yikes.

MERAJI: He does laugh about his, you know...

DEMBY: Dark.

MERAJI: ...The horrible circumstances in his life. I think it's, like, laugh to keep from crying maybe.

DEMBY: Right. Right.

MERAJI: I mean, I'm just assuming, but that foster home he was talking about was in a white part of San Gabriel, and he started running away from that foster home at 11 years old.


MERAJI: Back then, he was known as Freddy Baker, and he was trying on this, like, surfer-boy, white-boy identity, trying to blend in with the kids from around the foster home. But after one of these runaway attempts, he was picked up and taken to Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, and that's where Freddy remembers meeting an older Mexican kid who went by Buckwheat.

DEMBY: Buckwheat.

MERAJI: Buckwheat was covered in hand poke tattoos made with a sewing needle and mascara.

DEMBY: Ouch.

MERAJI: And Buckwheat was a gang member, and Freddy was fascinated by Buckwheat, and meeting him changed the course of his life. He wanted to reclaim his Mexican roots. And he was looking for belonging, a family, you know, that was better than his foster family, and he accomplished both those things the only way he knew how to at 12 years old, by joining a pretty notorious Mexican gang called Sanghera.

DEMBY: So that's where the local coyote moniker comes from.

MERAJI: Right. Freddy becomes a Sanghera member. He's a gang member, and he gets into all kinds of trouble which lands him in juvenile detention over and over again, and that's where he started drawing all the time. He says his artwork was his currency in lockup. Anything you needed, it was like a way to trade for a favor. What Freddy did was he made bespoke stationery. He made stationery for the other guys to write letters home on, and...


MERAJI: ...They'd make copies in the print shop, and that stationery supposedly ended up in all kinds of correctional facilities throughout Southern California.

DEMBY: Wow. So there's, like, all these prisons or jails where, like, Freddy's art...


DEMBY: ...Just, like, in the - like, the - that's crazy.

MERAJI: And the stationery had roses on it or charras Mexicanas, these badass Mexican cowgirls, or, like, Catholic symbols, like Our Lady of Guadalupe. There's one design in particular that he's still known for all these years later.

NEGRETE: When I was locked up, I would always look for different. ideas, you know, through magazines and stuff like that, you know, to put on the stationery. And one time, I saw a little ad for a acting workshop, and it had those masks, and I thought of my favorite song at the time, which was "Smile Now, Cry Later." So I did those faces - comedy and tragedy masks, you know, and I wrote, smile now, cry later and put it on the stationery.

DEMBY: So there's the two masks that - like, I guess - I think they're on the playbill thing. They can sit next to each other. Like, one of them is smiling. One of them is, like, in agony.

MERAJI: And they have those ribbons coming off the masks.

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

MERAJI: Those are the ones. And Freddy went from making stationary for dudes in lockup to giving them tattoos. And that transition happened - I know. That's weird, right? - but - and we're going to get to why. That transition happened after he was sent to a pretty infamous youth authority facility after shooting up a gang member's house.

DEMBY: I'm sorry. You're throwing a lot at me right now. OK. Wait. Wait. So he shot up...


DEMBY: ...Somebody's crib? Like, what are we - what?

MERAJI: So he was in this gang - the Sanghera gang - and they had a long running beef with the Lomas gang, and Freddy was right in the middle of all that. And when he was 18, he shot up this rival gang member's house. Nobody died, so I just want to put that out there.

MERAJI: Phew, thankfully, OK.

MERAJI: And, you know, he went in front of the judge and the judge was basically like - looked at him and was like, you're too young. This is ridiculous. I can't send you to a men's prison for years and years and years. So she took mercy on him and she sent him to a different program, a program for what he calls hardcore youth.

NEGRETE: You have to get in big trouble. They'd send you to prison, Tracy prison, and you'd be in there for 90 days and then they sent you back to this program called Tamrat (ph) program. And it was in this old building, all granite. It looked like a dark dungeon. It was awesome looking, you know? And your prison door was, like, this big iron door, you know, with like a little square with bars in it, you know? The guys in there were so nuts. The way they dealt with us was like this, you know, we'll let you tattoo, you know? We won't search your rooms. Just don't kill each other (laughter). It was kind of like a deal, you know, like - and so I ended up in a place in an institution where they let us tattoo. And we got the designs for how to make a tattoo machine from another prison. But that's where I learned. And so for the next three years being locked up in that Tamrat program, I tattooed every day. I tattooed myself all up. I even tattooed some of the staff members.

DEMBY: All right, Shereen, I have, like, a logistical question.


DEMBY: How are you - how are they making these tattoos? Like when he says he's doing it with a homemade machine, like - what?

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: What does that look like?

MERAJI: So the machines were made from parts from ballpoint pens, the gears and stuff from old tape players, a guitar string and a needle - a needle.

DEMBY: But what about the ink though?

MERAJI: You know, I asked him that too and he said that sometimes they'd get access to tattoo ink called Higgins.

NEGRETE: Sometimes the guards would, like, sneak it into you. If not, you would have to burn something like a chess piece or baby oil. And then when you burn it, it gives off like a black soot and you would capture that soot with a piece of paper, scrape it off, the ashes, and mix an ink out of it. We would let it sit on our windowsill and it would evaporate, which would make it blacker or add water to it, which would make it lighter, so...

DEMBY: That's the prison ingenuity.

MERAJI: Exactly. And so the tattoos were black and grey, right? Because...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...That's all they had access to.

DEMBY: Right, that's what they had. Right.

MERAJI: And they were known as prison-style tattoos or joint-style tattoos.

DEMBY: So they probably changed the name to black and grey just to get away from the stigma - right? - of calling it prison style, right?

MERAJI: I don't care what they say about you, Gene. You're smart.


DEMBY: Tell them to come (unintelligible).

MERAJI: No, that's exactly why.


MERAJI: The story starts in the mid-1970s. And legend has it that a white biker dude tattoo artist opened a little shop on Whittier Boulevard in east LA called Good Time Charlie's Tattooland. His name was...


MERAJI: I know, I love the name. His name was Charlie Cartwright, and he worked with this other artist named Jack Rudy who was also white. Their clientele, though, was mostly Mexican and Mexican-American. And they wanted a particular style of tattoo. The tattoos they did in la pinta, or prison.

DEMBY: Prison tattoos, I got you.

MERAJI: Right. So the "Smile Now, Cry Later" was a popular one and there were other designs Freddy sketched in prison that were up as flash work on the walls of Good Time Charlie's Tattooland.


MERAJI: Yeah. Because, you know, his stationery ended up all over, I guess it ended up on the walls of this tattoo shop too in east LA.

DEMBY: So they're like kind of profiting off of Freddy's designs?

MERAJI: And the problem was they couldn't be done with these professional machines that Jack and Charlie were using at the time because those machines had, like, multiple needles and they made these fat lines. Think of, you know, those tattoos with, like, playing cards or, you know, hearts with an arrow going through them. Like, they're super bright colors and they have these big fat black outlines around them.

DEMBY: Right. Right.

MERAJI: So what Jack and Charlie did was pretty innovative. They altered their machines so they'd work with one needle and they gave the people what they wanted - joint style.

NEGRETE: Fine line, black-and-grey shading, aztec images because we feel like we're like warriors, revolutionary images because we're rebels, religious images, you know, because we're Catholic, the portraits because we like remembering people that we love that passed away. The lettering was really big. That - we started the lettering, you know, like Old English on the stomach, because we wanted to say something about who we were and where we were from. And you could do that with writing.

MERAJI: Freddy told me when he got out he went to the shop and he was like, yo, that's my art on your walls.

DEMBY: Right. Right.

MERAJI: And Jack said, yeah, right. Everybody says that. Everybody says their uncle did it, or their cousin did it, or their homie did it. And Freddy was like, nah, I have proof. And he had some of the originals from that stationary he made when he was in lockup. And at this point, he was tattooing with a homemade machine in his kitchen, charging 15 or 20 bucks a tattoo, and he'd send people over to Good Time Charlie's in east LA like a calling card to show off his work because he really, really wanted to land a job there.


MERAJI: Which is something he did in 1977.

NEGRETE: I was like the first Chicano that ever even got a job as a professional tattoo artist.

DEMBY: So he says there are plenty of Chicanos like him who did prison tattoos inside and outside of the joint with a homemade machine in their kitchen or, like, in the garage or in prison. But he's really the first guy to do it professionally. And that happened after Good Time Charlie Cartwright found God, became a born-again Christian.

DEMBY: OK. So a different kind of good time now.


DEMBY: Good news Charlie.

MERAJI: Good news Charlie. He got out of the tattoo business. And he ended up selling his shop to an art school graduate living in San Francisco named Ed Hardy.

DEMBY: (Laughter) I'm sorry.

MERAJI: I know you know that name.

DEMBY: Yes. So is it the Ed Hardy? The dude with the...

MERAJI: The Ed Hardy.

DEMBY: ...The cheesy-ass (ph) clothing for, like, the dude-bros (ph), got all the shiny lettering?


DEMBY: You wear it with your distressed jeans and your square-toe Kenneth Cole Reaction shoes.

MERAJI: That's the Ed Hardy.

DEMBY: (Laughter) The Ed Hardy.

MERAJI: Actually it's not because most of these tattoo artists that I talked to - I talked to a bunch of tattoo artists for this story. And they were like, please don't judge him based on that brand. (Laughter) He's a world-renowned artist. And he is really credited for upping the tattoo game in the U.S. and helping get it recognized as a legitimate art form.

DEMBY: I did not know that. OK.

MERAJI: Yeah. So that's Ed Hardy. And it was after Ed bought Good Time Charlie's that Freddy Negrete was hired in 1977. And it was Ed who suggested that they stop referring to this style of tattoo as prison style or joint style and start calling it black-and-gray realism.

DEMBY: Wow. Apologies for the shade, Ed Hardy, my bad. Black and gray. OK.


MERAJI: Gene, Freddy told me those couple of years tattooing in east LA were pretty awesome despite all the gang violence because...

DEMBY: Was it like...

MERAJI: ...There was a lot of gang violence.

DEMBY: ...The '70s? What - do we have time period on that?

MERAJI: Yes. So it was 1977. So it was, like - I think it was in 1980 when they decided to move the shop because things got way too crazy in east LA. But those couple of years, there was this big low-rider cruising scene down Whittier Boulevard. Freddy says it was free advertising for their tattoo art. And he told me the popularity of tattoos today, these days, brings him back to those good old days.

NEGRETE: The energy back in the '70s on Whittier Boulevard in east LA with the Chicano people, their love for tattoos and how we had them lined up out the door every day, you know, like, that excitement has transferred into mainstream society.

MERAJI: I know. It feels like everyone has a tattoo now. Like, I'm rare. I have no tattoos. But...

NEGRETE: We can change that up for you.


DEMBY: Shereen, you going to let him - are you going to let him change that up for you?

MERAJI: I might. I mean, I have never thought so seriously about getting a tattoo as I have after doing this story and while I was working on this story. I actually have this photo of my parents right before they got married. And they're looking down at my mom's ring - (laughter) really cheesy and cute. And my mom was like, you better not do that.


MERAJI: Don't you dare do that. I know. I...

DEMBY: You shouldn't have told her.

MERAJI: ...So now I don't want to upset them, you know, in their golden years. But yeah. If I was going to get a tattoo, that would be it. And I would have Freddy do it or actually there's this awesome other tattoo artist I met who does black and gray. I might have him do it, too. What about you?

DEMBY: That's what's up.

MERAJI: Would you get a tattoo?

DEMBY: I've been thinking about it actually very hard for the last couple months. I think I have something in my head. But I kind of don't want to say it out loud. But yes, I think I would do it. I absolutely would do it.

MERAJI: Do it. I think you should do it. Let's do it together.


MERAJI: Come to LA.

DEMBY: Yes. Next time I'm out there. Let's do it.


JAMES BLAKE: (Singing) All those days and all that stays and...

MERAJI: And that's our show. If you're curious to learn more about black and gray tattoos, there's a great documentary that gets deep into this called "Tattoo Nation." And then there's Freddy's memoir, "Smile Now, Cry Later." It's a great read. There's a lot more to his story. We just scratched the surface with a single needle.

DEMBY: I see what you did there.

MERAJI: (Laughter) All right, Gene. It's your turn. I've been doing all the songs giving us life lately.

DEMBY: You have. You have. You have.

MERAJI: Yes. So give me the song giving you life.

DEMBY: All right. Let's keep it on the West Coast since we - that's what we doing. I want to shout out "Bloody Waters." It's a very, very dope song by Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak and James Blake. It's off the "Black Panther" soundtrack. It's been on my workout playlist for the last couple months. It's very dope. It's also very, very West Coast, which is usually not my thing when it comes to hip-hop.

MERAJI: What's so West Coast about it?

DEMBY: You just listen to the way he says his words - Ab-Soul says. He shouts out all these, like, LA spots - Dominguez, et cetera, et cetera, which I only really know from rap songs, but yeah.


AB-SOUL: (Rapping) I had to be about 9 when I first had seen it. pulled lows-Low up outside of the Ralph's. After a car show at Dominguez, they had a disagreement they had to air out. Just another day in Del Amo...

DEMBY: Y'all should follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Do people still use email? I don't know. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed, and subscribe to our newsletter, our very dope newsletter. You can do that at npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter.

MERAJI: And if you're curious and want to see some tattoo pictures and want to see what Freddy looks like and some of his work, go to our blog - npr.org/codeswitch. This episode was produced by Sami Yenigun, Leah Donnella and me. And this episode was edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: A shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Walter Ray Watson, Kumari Devarajan and Steve Drummond. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

DEMBY: Real quick. We wanted to shout out one of our NPR colleagues who died this week. Her name was Chinita Anderson. And she was a big part of the culture of NPR, particularly at Morning Edition. She was a joy to be around. She was full of enthusiasm. And we wanted to make sure that we acknowledged her. Rest in power, homie.

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