Tattoo artists Freddy Negrete and Chuey Quintanar chronicle the evolution of the popular black and grey realism tattoo style in an interview with NPR Code Switch journalist Shereen Marisol Meraji that aired on NPR’s Morning Edition today (April 12). 


Unfinished upper sleeve #cuauhtemoc with a Lil twist on @Minott1020

A post shared by Freddy Negrete (@freddy_negrete) on Aug 25, 2017 at 10:12am PDT

In the segment, Negrete, who has inked Hollywood stars and consulted on films, explained that he spent time in various penal institutions. In those settings, where he first learned his craft, men tattooed each other with materials like burnt baby oil, which could only be diluted into black and grey shades.

Given the reality of prison segregation, Negrete primarily inked other Chicanx men with symbols of Mexican revolutionaries, Aztec and Mayan figures and text in very specific fonts. “We started the lettering, like [with] Olde 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.”

This style found a larger audience in Mexican-American communities in East Los Angeles with the launch of Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland, where Negrete started his career, in the mid-’70s. Negrete went on to achieve fame in tattooing circles. He continues to influence later generations of artists like Quintanar, with whom he currently shares a spotlight at a tattoo exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Quintanar explained that he, like Negrete and his contemporaries, learned tattooing with homemade materials. 

“This is the way we started, back in the day, there was no apprenticeship for Chicanos,” Quintanar said. 

Listen to the full segment: 

*Post updated to correct the timeline of Negrete’s incarceration.