How Prison Tattoos Can Save Former Inmates

June 28th 2015

Thor Benson

Freddy Negrete is a 58-year-old tattoo artist in Los Angeles, California. He's been involved in tattoo culture for over 40 years. Unlike most tattoo artists, who developed a passion for drawing over the years and eventually decided to apprentice under an artist, Negrete received his initial education in a less traditional manner

Negrete grew up a troubled youth in a bad neighborhood, and he was a gang member as a kid. When Negrete was 11 or 12-years-old, he ended up in juvenile hall for running away from home. While he was in a cell waiting to be taken to court, the guards brought in a 17-year-old "cholo kid," as he puts it, who had prison tattoos. "I'm sure normally an older kid like that wouldn't have even given me the time of day, but he had all these tattoos--writing and crosses--and I was so impressed with his tattoos," Negrete told ATTN:. Negrete asked how the tattoos were done, and the 17-year-old explained they were done by dipping a needle in ink and poking it into the skin. Negrete was intrigued. The kid also told him he could poke mascara into his skin to do a simple tattoo. That night, Negrete got his sister's mascara and did his first tattoo on himself. It was the first of many tattoos he would produce.

"Eventually, in my neighborhood, I became the tattoo guy," Negrete said. "I was doing hand poke tattoos on the home boys."

A lot of the talented prison tattoo artists were from his neighborhood in East L.A., and he would learn from them when they were out of prison. He was something of an unofficial apprentice. It was all "hand poke" tattoos, as he calls it, back then.

Tattooing in prison is illegal, but many inmates do it anyway. It has been said some prisons choose not to punish tattooing within the prison, as hygiene standards can decrease when inmates are forced to hide the practice. (Hepatitis C can be spread through unsanctioned prison tattooing. Canada even ran a pilot program offering safe tattooing in a shop in the prison along with health education, according to a Slate article.) A popular prison tattoo is four dots in a square shape with a dot in the middle. That tattoo represents that the person has been in prison, as the four dots represent the corners of the cell, and the dot in the middle is the inmate.

Between the ages of about 16 to 20, Negrete was in one of California's Youth Authority prisons for his involvement in robberies and gang violence. The Youth Authority prisons, now called the Division of Juvenile Justice, was where younger people served prison time for offenses like assault and theft. Negrete was in there with some rough guys. That's where he learned to make tattoo machines using cassette player motors, tooth brushes, ball point pens, sharpened guitar strings and paper clips. Those are all items that are allowed in most jails or are easy to smuggle in. It sounds like a MacGyver tattoo machine, but Negrete still has respect for it. "It was quite an ingenious little contraption, you know?" he said.

The artists were always popular in prison, according to Negrete, but that doesn't mean he didn't get in plenty of fights. However, since he was an artist, he always had everything he needed. All of the prisoners wanted artwork to send home or tattoos while they were there, so his work was sought after and paid for with whatever people had. He said the prison staff would even sometimes purchase his artwork. This is of course against the rules, but it happens in prisons across the country

The prison staff where Negrete was being held didn't make a big deal out of prisoners doing tattoos. "The staff felt like as long as we didn't kill each other, they'd let us tattoo," he said. "That's where I got really good at it." He said he tattooed every day and made countless homemade machines. "When I got out, I started tattooing out of my apartment at the same time Good Time Charlie's Tattoo in East L.A. was attempting to offer prison-style tattoos to the public," he said. Everyone in East L.A., in the Chicano culture, wanted their tattoos to look like they were done in prison at that time. Most tattoos being done in shops were traditional-style tattoos, which are more colorful and use bold lines and cartoon-like images. Prison-style tattoos were typically black and grey, made with thin lines and utilized words and symbols from gang cultures. Negrete had the style people were looking for.

Ed Hardy eventually bought Good Time Charlie's and hired him. Ed Hardy coined the term "black and grey" tattooing, according to Negrete, and helped make it popular beyond Los Angeles. Thanks to getting hired by Hardy, Negrete has had a successful career. He's gone from prison to tattooing celebrities and people from all kinds of backgrounds at his current job at Shamrock Social Club Tattoo in West Hollywood. He said his criminal record hasn't made his life harder, but he knows that's not normal. "I'm one of those rare cases where I really did learn something in prison that helped me out in my life," he said. 

Men with criminal records between the ages of 25 and 54 account for over one-third of the unemployed in America. Minorities are disproportionately affected by this problem. Training programs in prison can help, but many employers are still hesitant to hire anyone with a criminal record, even if the crime was minor. It's something of a double punishment in the United States, and it can ruin people's lives. 

After years of avoiding prison, Negrete did eventually end up back there in 2004, after his son died. He began using drugs, and he was eventually caught in possession of speed (amphetamine). He served two years in prison for possession. A long sentence for a simple crime. He said tattooing inside prison has changed a lot since his first experiences, because they're making rigs with more than one needle now, this way the artists can do more intricate shading and details. He says prisoners started using CD motors for tattoo guns, but the needles are still guitar strings. They've figured out how to water down black ink to make greys and how to evaporate the ink to make it more black. He said they burn baby oil to capture soot from its smoke in a paper bag, and then they mix the soot with soap and water to make the black ink.

Negrete may have learned a lot in prison, but that doesn't mean he thinks highly of our prison system. "We're a big prison country, especially California ... It's so overcrowded in there," he said. He believes one major cause of high incarceration rates is due to Draconian drug laws. "Prop. 47 was actually a turn in the right direction, because you have so many people going to prison for possession of drugs, which was a felony, so the prisons were jam packed," he said. Proposition 47 was a referendum California passed that made possession of most drugs a misdemeanor, instead of a felony. "People were going [to prison] for just doing drugs, and prison isn't the answer ... People need treatment," Negrete said. He said he received treatment when he got out of prison, and it worked for him.

People are still leaving prison and getting tattoo jobs, as far as he's seen, and he's helped people do that. He has lined several artists up with jobs who he thought were talented enough to do it professionally. He's very happy with how the industry has grown. "It's so amazing that something that was created in prison has become so popular and so accepted by the general society," he said. Most people are subjected to a lifetime of lost job opportunities after a prison sentence, but some artists manage to escape that fate.