Interview By Shane Enholm
Shane Enholm: When is the first time you saw a tattoo?
Freddy Negrete: The first time I was really struck with the whole tattoo thing I was 12 years old. I was raised in a foster home because my parents went to prison. So I was in a foster home and it was a white foster home. I grew up in a white area of San Gabriel but I knew the Mexican community from school. I was a troublemaker white kid so they liked me...
I started running away from home because the foster home was abusive and I remember I was in Eastlake Juvenile Hall in East L.A. and they were going to let me go back home. I had just gone to court and I was in a holding cell by myself and they brought this other kid in. He was 16 or 17 and his name was Buckwheat. He was from Monte Via and he was a hardcore cholo guy. I was a little kid. I think the only reason he even talked to me was that we were the only two guys in the cell.
The first thing I was fascinated with was all his tattoos. He had a Jesus head and a cross and stuff like that all over. Right at that moment, I was so impressed with that guy –he was just a badass. So I started asking him questions about the tattoos. He goes, “Yeah, you get a needle and wrap thread around it, melt it into a toothbrush and just dip it into India ink and just tap away. Or you could use a girl’s mascara.”
I got released that day and that night I was in my bed right away. I had my sister’s mascara, a needle and thread. I tied it the way he told me to do it and I did this little tattoo on my hand. I saved it. I was going to write my name but it turned out to be a little more work than I expected. Not long after that I made the conversion. I went to this boys’ home and I met this other kid there that was a cholo… In the boys’ home they had a certain amount of funds and they would take you to buy clothes. I bought all cholo clothes. While I was in that boys’ home I made the switch from surfer dude to cholo. When I escaped from there I went back to the San Gabriel neighborhood (the barrio part) and I just showed up… I saw some of the kids I knew from school and they were already gangsters.
I just showed up there and they were like, “This is Freddy Barker,” because I had the foster’s name. So I said, “That’s not my name. My name is Fernando Negrete and I’m half Mexican. I want to join the hood.” So they jumped me in the neighborhood right there. And a couple of days later I did my first tattoo on one of the homeboys with the needle and thread and everything. I put an SG on him and I put the same thing on me. I did the name later.
Then I did a couple of Pachuco crosses. So those were my first tattoos. After that I became a real crazy gangster kid. I was already in trouble and I thought I really had something to prove because everyone knew me as this white kid and I was light skinned and everything. So I became a hardcore cholo -in and out of juvenile hall and camps all the time. Another person that really influenced me, because I could draw…
That’s what I wanted to know, were you drawing?
Yeah, I could always draw. They recognized an artistic ability in my when I was in the second grade. My father was an artist and he actually painted portraits when he was in prison of me and my sister and mailed them to us. So I knew about him being an artist and I knew that I could draw. And actually becoming a Mexican gangster and being in institutions, that gave me a subject matter.
When did you go electric? Was it in YA [Youth Authority]?
Yeah. What happened was I eventually got arrested for this gang shooting and I went to youth court. When I first got to Youth Authority I had friends there that worked in the print shop and the instructor in the print shop was really cool. He saw my drawings and he got me a job in the print shop. I got a job in the camera room, which was just built. So we had to this camera and all these line screens and everything. So I would draw my designs and then we would reduce them down to tattoo size and put them on stationary paper, which was just paper with lines on it, and down in the corner would be my design. We printed thousands! As long as we printed up the stuff for the institution that our instructor needed, the rest of the day we could make whatever we wanted. So we made fancy envelopes and stationary.
For letters, right? I’ve seen those.
Yes, and stationary paper for people to write on. We’d send it to all the prisons so when people wrote home –people would write home and say, “I drew this, baby.” So actually the first time I went to Good Time Charlie’s in East L.A. I looked up on the wall and saw my designs there! I remember I told Jack [Rudy], “Hey, that’s my design!” He goes, “Dude, do you know how many times people come in here and said that their cousin, their uncle or their somebody drew that design?” But I had a folder with me and I had the original right there. But that’s how the whole “Smile Now, Cry Later” thing started.
I was going to ask you that.
I was always looking for stuff to draw -in magazines, pretty girl faces, stuff like that. I remember in one magazine I came across an ad for an acting workshop and there was a comedy/tragedy mask there. Now you know, gangsters listen to oldies but goodies. That’s all we listen to –oldies but goodies. And the minute I saw that design I thought of “Smile Now, Cry Later.” So I drew up my own version. I had the original version but I drew my own version of masks and I wrote “Smile Now, Cry Later” in fancy gangster writing, printed it out on that stationary and mailed it out to everybody.
I saw that in the 80s. “Smile Now, Cry Later” was on everybody. I mean, everybody, man. Either it was the lettering or the faces, but that’s like legendary. I was going to ask you about that.
That was maybe about ’73 or ’74 when I drew the originals.
Freddy Negrete can be found at Shamrock Social Club in Hollywood, CA.
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(From the full article as seen in the upcoming Tattoo Artist Magazine #31.)