NOEL KING, HOST:
If you or someone you know has tattoos, you might recognize this style of tattooing that's become really popular at the moment. It's called black and gray realism. Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team looked into its roots.
FREDDY NEGRETE: Hi, I'm Freddy Negrete, tattoo artist here at Shamrock Social Club on the world-famous Sunset Strip.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Negrete looks much younger than his 61 years in a T-shirt, sneakers and flat-brimmed Raiders hat. And because he's wearing short sleeves, I can see a menagerie of tattoos on both his arms.
NEGRETE: These are tattoos that I did when I was in prison.
MERAJI: On yourself?
NEGRETE: Yeah. Like, I did this arm.
MERAJI: 'Cause you're right-handed? So you did your left arm.
NEGRETE: Exactly. (Laughter) The hands in the handcuffs with the butterfly on top.
MERAJI: You did that?
NEGRETE: The butterfly represents freedom.
MERAJI: Negrete's a former gang member in recovery for addiction. He's also an incredible artist who helped mainstream black and gray style. Rather than the thick, black outlines and bright colors of traditional-style tattoos, black and gray tattoos have finer lines and subtle shading. These days, they're so detailed, they look like high-def black and white photos.
(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO NEEDLE BUZZING)
MERAJI: I met up with Negrete where he works, the Shamrock Social Club in Los Angeles. He says Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been inked here. But on this day, he's getting ready to tattoo a 22-year-old from Louisiana who works on an offshore supply ship. Zach Osbourne (ph) told me, no color for him. It doesn't age well. So in his downtime on his ship out in the Gulf, he researched tattoo artists who do black and gray, and he found Freddy Negrete.
How did you choose him?
ZACH OSBOURNE: Internet. Instagram, mainly.
MERAJI: 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. Historywise, no.
NEGRETE: Prison ingenuity. (Laughter).
MERAJI: Negrete's got firsthand knowledge of black and gray's prison history. He's laughing, but he had a seriously rough childhood. Both his parents were incarcerated, and he was raised in an abusive foster home. He spent time in youth authority, county jail and Folsom State Prison. He says everywhere he was locked up, there were homemade tattoo machines with parts from big pens, needles and old-school tape players. And if there wasn't ink, inmates made it by burning things like baby oil.
NEGRETE: 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 the 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.
MERAJI: The tattoos were black and gray out of necessity, really, and the homemade machines only had one needle. A single needle meant finer lines. If you could draw, you could tattoo. Prison's segregated so Freddy was tattooing the other Chicanos he was locked up with, and they wanted certain things - Catholic imagery, Aztec and Mayan symbols, Mexican revolutionaries.
NEGRETE: But transformed into a beautiful girl with a gun belt and a sombrero, the portraits. Because we like remembering people that we love that passed away. 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: So how did this style break out and go legit? It started when a tattoo parlor opened up in East Los Angeles in the mid-'70s called Good Time Charlie's Tattooland. Their primarily Mexican-American clientele, male and female, wanted what were then called prison-style tattoos, or tattoos they did in la pinta, with fine lines and black and gray shading, fancy lettering, roses, portraits of loved ones, religious symbols. Freddy knew this, and when he got out of lockup, he would send people he tattooed over to the shop to show off his work. He eventually landed a job a Good Time Charlie's in 1977.
NEGRETE: I was, like, the first Chicano that ever even got a job as a professional tattoo artist.
MERAJI: The cruising scene on Whittier Boulevard in East LA was great early advertising. In a couple of years, Negrete was getting shine at tattoo conventions and in tattoo magazines. Years later, he consulted on Hollywood films that needed realistic tattoos, like 1993's "Blood In, Blood Out" about three relatives caught up in East LA's gang life.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Vatos Locos forever.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Forever.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Forever.
MERAJI: Today Freddy Negrete's work is featured in an exhibition at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum called "Tattoo." It takes you through the origins and evolution of the art form, and Chicano-style black and gray is part of the show. In the very first room right when you walk into the exhibition, there's a life-sized silicone arm with a full-sleeve tattoo of Mesoamerican imagery in black and gray. It was made by Chuey Quintanar, who was born two years after Freddy Negrete got his first job at Good Time Charlie's. Quintanar didn't learn how to tattoo in la pinta, but he did learn on a single-needle machine in his garage in North Long Beach, Calif., at 14 years old.
CHUEY QUINTANAR: One of my friends made me a homemade machine and told me, like, you're a good artist. You should start tattooing. This is the way we started back in the day. There was no apprenticeship for Chicanos.
MERAJI: Quintanar was born in Mexico City and came to Southern California as a little kid. The last thing his immigrant parents wanted was a cholo son. And, back in the '90s in Southern California, tattoos and gang banging were synonymous. But Quintanar kept at it and took black and gray to a whole new level. Freddy Negrete says he was blown away by Chuey Quintana's tattoo of Michelangelo's famous Pieta statue, the one where Mary is holding a lifeless Jesus draped over her lap.
NEGRETE: That was the most fantastic tattoo that I ever saw.
MERAJI: Quintanar got the folds of her dress, the detail of Jesus' naked torso, the way the light hit the statue - everything - just right. Negrete says he's honored to be in a museum alongside the next generation like Chuey Quintanar, who's not only a successful tattoo artist but co-owns a shop called Deer's Eye Studio. Quintanar says his parents have come around to the profession, especially his mom. Once world-famous Mexican singer Alejandro Fernandez got one of his tattoos, she was one-hundred percent onboard.
QUINTANAR: Yeah. She's always showing me off with her friends, always. Yeah. And then she's always on my Instagram, too, commenting, like, my son, I'm so proud of you. (Laughter). Like, Mom, it's public. (Laughter).
MERAJI: The tattoo exhibition at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum is open to the public through this Sunday, and then it closes for good. But Freddy Negrete and Chuey Quintanar say they'll be creating one-of-a-kind art pieces on human canvases for as long as their minds and bodies will allow. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "SNAKE OIL - INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.