According to a report by Pew Research, four in ten Millennials are tattooed, so it's no surprise that Los Angeles has over 150 tattoo parlors in the city center. There are approximately four tattoo parlors per 100,000 people making Los Angeles the 10th most tattooed city in America according to a report by MSNBC.
The tattoo industry has been thriving in Los Angeles even during this rough economy. Even as money gets tight, residents do not seem willing to forgo their tattoos.
This is good news for L.A. based tattoo artists like Freddy Negrete who is credited as one of the fathers of black and gray tattooing outside of the prison system. This Chicano style of tattooing was born behind bars in Los Angeles and thanks to tattoo greats like Freddy it flooded out on the streets. Now L.A. is considered the mecca of black and gray tattooing.
Freddy told us he first got turned onto tattooing when he was a kid. "When I was very young - around eleven - I started rebelling and getting in trouble, and I remember being in juvenile hall. I saw this cholo kid, a kid from Montavilla, and he had a handful of tattoos all over him, and I was just amazed by them. It was a holding cell, we were waiting for court, and we were the only ones in the court because I was an eleven year old kid. I started asking him all these questions about the tattoos. He said you get a needle and thread, and you wrap the thread around the needle and dip the needle in India ink. I was released that day and I went straight home and followed his instructions and did my first tattoo on myself. Not long after that I ended up joining a Chicano gang [Sangra], and by the time I was twelve I had a handful of tattoos inked on."
It wasn't long before Freddy started creating his own designs, and the way he spread them is nothing short of marketing genius.
"When I was in youth authority I worked in the camera room in the print shop and I learned all these cultural images and designed them and put my twist on them. We would print them on stationery paper, and then print lines on it, and down in the bottom left-hand corner we would print an image I drew up, just reduce it down and put it on the paper, and we printed thousands of those and we mailed stacks of the paper to all the different prisons and people would write home on this stationery and those images made it all over L.A."
One of his most popular tattoo designs is Smile Now, Cry Later. "When I was looking through a magazine for different things to design and get ideas, I saw an ad for an acting workshop and I saw the comedy-tragedy faces. I drew my own version and there is a song, an oldie but goodie, we would always listen to called 'Smile Now, Cry Later.' [by Sunny and the Sunliners] I wrote the name of that song on the tattoo and that's how that tattoo got started. Everybody gets it."
After tattooing in his apartment for a while using a homemade tattoo machine, Freddy ended up working at Good Time Charlie's, alongside Jack Rudy who created the single needle for the professional tattoo machine.
"Good Time Charlie turned Christian and quit tattooing and he sold his shop to Ed Hardy. Ed Hardy at the time was The Master tattoo artist. He introduced Japanese style to America and he perfected the traditional style, and he discovered this new style that is what he called 'black and gray' - the Chicano style. When the shop was for sale he didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands, so he bought the shop. Jack Rudy told him about me. And Hardy said 'we gotta get this guy in here. He knows the work they want,' and he hired me, so I went to work with Jack Rudy at Good Time Charlie's."
What the people wanted were the black and gray fineline tattoos. These tattoos - all done with shades of gray - spoke to the Chicano culture. And people did not want tattoos that looked like shop tattoos. They wanted the tattoos that looked like they were done in prison.
Freddy explains the difference between shop tattoos and prison tattoos. "Eventually when they learned how to make the prison machines out of the tape players, the difference was they wanted thin lines and shading to try to make the images appear more realistic. Shop tattoos and traditional tattoos [at the time] always thought that the lines should be big and bold and filled in with color. The artwork was always really basic and simple. What we were trying to do is make things look more realistic with gray shading and real thin lines, and no color whatsoever. All black."
Noah Minuskin who was introduced to tattooing in Santa Rosa, California at an early age. "Seeing neighborhood cats back home covered in work was very intriguing to me growing up." Now, years later, Noah can say he has dabbled in all styles of tattooing, from traditional to full color. "Ultimately, my heart rests in creating black and gray tattoo work."The tattoo greats like Freddy Negrete paved the way for newer artists like
Black and gray tattooing appeals to Noah because of the direct relationship with drawing. "Growing up I loved to draw and still am constantly scribbling and filling pages in my sketchbook to this day. With black and gray there is a similarity with the shading as there is with a number 2 pencil," Noah explained.
Noah relocated from Santa Rosa to L.A., the home of black and gray.
"Jack Rudy, Good Time Charlie, and Freddy Negrete, to name a couple, refined and mastered the style outside the prison system. They saw potential in something amazing and took the artform to places that no one would have thought possible. Without them, the doors that my younger generation are now able to walk through would still be locked, and we would be clueless as to where to find the key."
Bigboy (Jamie Pompa) came onto the Los Angeles tattoo scene about fifteen years ago, starting with a homemade machine. He practiced lettering at first, but after his father sponsored a tattoo kit, Bigboy moved onto the black and gray and Chicano styles that Los Angeles is known for before developing his own style.L.A. born tattoo artist
"I have always been fascinated by Japanese style art, and I define my style as neo-Japanese," says Bigboy, "But like I said, I am also very familiar with the black and gray L.A. style, portraits and all that come with it."
Like most tattoo artists, Bigboy started drawing and got his first tattoo at an early age. "I saw the process [of tattooing] and thought it was easy, and the transition from paper to skin came almost natural."
But why is fineline black and gray so predominate in L.A.? "The style was birthed and cultivated here, and is seen down here on a much more regular basis than it is up north," says Noah. "I suppose Northern California would be better known for the traditional style of tattoo work, but I wouldn't let those divisions of north and south get in the way."
"Once you look beyond that," said Noah, "I think that you will be able to see that we both are more alike than not. I don't see scenes, but rather communities of artists working together to break past traditions and lead our culture to hold its respected place in history."
In L.A. at least, tattoos are holding their place. According to Bigboy, tattoos and the culture are widely accepted throughout Los Angeles. "You see bankers, architects, surgeons and other white collar professionals with tattoos, and not just small ones hidden, but people proudly wear them and show them off. In L.A. having a really good tattoo of good size is considered a symbol of not just status but also money because like the old saying goes 'good tattoos aren't cheap, and cheap tattoos aren't good.'"
View MetroSeeker.com: Los Angeles Body Mod Shops in a larger map