Tattoos, Prison, and Recovery: An Interview with Freddy Negrete

By Steve Jones 12/04/17

It didn’t really hit home until I was in the county jail, in a wheelchair, going through heroin withdrawal. That’s when I realized: I did this to myself, I did this.

Freddy Negrete tattooing an arm.
"These past 10 years have been the most amazing years of my whole life."

Profiled in numerous TV programs and magazine articles, East L.A. gang member Freddy Negrete became an orphan-of-the-living at two-and-a-half years old when his parents, both pachuco gangsters, ended up in prison, one for armed robbery and the other for manslaughter. A gifted and natural-born artist, Freddy was transported from the confines of prison cells— where he honed his craft to become a master, and pioneer, of black-and-gray realism—onto the sets of major Hollywood films such as Batman, Blade, Con Air, Austin Powers and Falling Down. But then, after years of success in the motion picture industry, Freddy found himself back inside again: in Folsom maximum security prison, going through opioid withdrawal, tattooing for packets of ramen soup. 

In 2010, at a meeting to discuss a screenplay adaptation, I met a friend of Freddy's who invited me to hear Freddy speak. I was so struck by his recovery story—a story I felt needed to be told—I decided to co-author his autobiography. The screenplay adaptation never happened but the book, Smile Now, Cry Later, published by Seven Stories Press, was released six years later. Sometimes you don’t find stories, stories find you.

As a gang member in the 1970s, you'd see the older homeboys in the San Gabriel barrio strung out on heroin and you would say to each other, "Man, I'm never going to do that." A few years later, you took that first fix. Was there something in you that said, "I can handle this, I'm not going to end up like those older guys?"

As young, hot-headed vatos we were heavily engaged in violent conflicts with rival gangs. We’d see the older homeboys on heroin, but they seemed to be just hanging around, on the nod, and they were extremely paranoid. Back then, the cops could stop anyone they wanted, and if you had needle marks or pin-prick eyes they would arrest you for being "under the influence of heroin" and you would get an automatic ninety days. So these guys were always low-profile and the worst part of it was, they would fraternize with the guys from the rival neighborhoods for dope deals. We didn’t like that. So I told myself: I’m never going to do heroin and end up like those idiots.

A couple of years later, just before I turned 18, one of my homeboys’ older sister was dating this big, bad ass, hard-core guy from 18th Street and he took us to this house in Highland Park. He had a home-made syringe which consisted of a plastic grape (the plunger) tied to the stem of a push-up ice cream with a needle in it. I didn’t want to look like I was punking out so I let him fix me up. I got terribly sick, puking all night long, so I didn’t really like it. Years later, I became a successful tattoo artist. Life was good, I was newly married and, through another homeboy, I got turned on again. I puked a couple of times but this time I liked the high, it seemed to enhance my success. Then one day, I remember it well, we went to see the very first Alien movie and all of a sudden I got this terrible cramp. I went to the bathroom and I saw that I’d turned all white, I was sweating and I kept throwing up—I was strung out.

When you first heard about the concept of total abstinence, did that seem impossible to you?

We had never heard of anybody just giving up everything. It was only when I joined a Christian evangelical organization in the 1980s that I witnessed a method that was transforming people to the point where they became completely abstinent. To the organization, everything was a sin: tattooing, using drugs, drinking, even smoking so I gave it all up. The day I accepted Christ I was an active heroin addict so I was expecting to get really sick, but I didn’t, my withdrawals were minimal. Something definitely happened to me, and I of course attributed that to God not only removing the mental obsession, but the physical suffering of heroin withdrawal as well. I remained clean and sober for many years, and I became a pastor of my own church, but then I back slid and started "chipping": using heroin occasionally. Heroin became something I tried to control—using on holidays, family picnics and weekends. But then I would use for one day during the week and the next thing it would be every day. I always thought I could chip, control my heroin use, but in reality, I never could.

In 2007 you're living in a motel taking heroin, speed and Oxycontin and you've been diagnosed with drug-induced congestive heart failure. But, despite feeling that you were "dying inside" and knowing that the drugs were doing serious physical harm, you continued to use. Can you talk about that?

One of my homeboys’ father was an alcoholic. He had his chair in the back yard and one day he sat me down and started telling me this horrendous story about what he was going through. His stomach was heavily bloated, he had no color and he just looked terrible. His ankles were swollen up like an elephant, he was on dialysis and he told me all about his cirrhosis. How it was killing him and how I should never let this happen to me but then, almost in the same breath, he went and poured himself another drink. At the time I couldn’t put two and two together. I just couldn’t figure it out. Here was a man telling me that he was dying and telling me not to drink but then he starts drinking in front of me. That’s the nature of the disease, where we are willing to sacrifice our families, everything that is dear to us and even look death in the face, just sneer and continue to use. And now, decades later, I found myself in the same situation. I was really sick, my organs weren’t getting enough oxygen, but I just couldn’t stop because once I’d get high I wouldn’t care what was happening inside my body. To me it seemed like it was all part of a program. This is the life I had chosen, this is how I was going to die and I’d almost made my peace with that. It didn’t really hit home until I was in the county jail, in a wheelchair, going through heroin withdrawal. That’s when I realized: I did this to myself, I did this.

You are in the back of an ambulance, en route from L.A. County Jail to the hospital. At this point most people around you are looking at you as if you are "not long for this world," including the EMT, and yet, in this moment, you have a moment of faith, a feeling that everything will be okay. Can you talk about that moment and what led up to it?

With congestive heart failure, the ability of your heart to pump blood through your body is diminished and so the first thing I felt is that my lungs were not working, they weren’t getting enough oxygen and I couldn’t breathe properly. Of course, it didn’t help that I was also smoking speed, heroin and weed. And then I got arrested, for possession. They put me in this big, hot, tank with at least 50 people, standing room only, and I couldn’t breathe in there. I thought I was going to die. So I got on the floor in order to breathe this cool air streaming in through a gap under the door. Then the sheriffs spotted me. They all knew me because of the murals I’d painted on my previous visits to the county jail and my status as a tattoo artist. I was so sick. I could hardly walk so the sheriffs called a doctor. He examined me and said, “I just don’t see how you can go on without a heart transplant.” Well, as a convicted felon I didn’t think I was going to be very high on that list! Then, because of the combination of heart disease and heroin withdrawals, my condition got worse and I suffered my first heart attack. They took me to the general hospital, gave me some meds and sent me back in a wheelchair. But, my condition didn’t improve—and then, BHAM! The second heart attack.

I was certain I was going to die in there. I was so depressed, so I started really thinking about God and I remembered this story from the bible. It was about a king who had sinned against God. A prophet approached him and said “Get your affairs in order, your time has come.” But the king decided he was going to appeal to God, directly, so he asked God for more time, and because of his faith, God granted him 15 more years. So I decided I was also going to talk to God directly—alone. There was only one place I could do that: the shower area. It took me half an hour to make it up two short flights of stairs and when I got there the place was empty so I got on my knees and I asked God for more time but, in my heart, I just didn’t have the faith that anything was going to change. I didn’t believe that God was going to do anything for me. And then, in the morning, the sharp pains came again. I had another heart attack. Number three. It was as if God was slamming down a big rubber stamp—request denied! But then, in the ambulance, with the whole side of my body in pain and my organs feeling like they were about to push out of my throat, all of a sudden, I was certain that I was going to recover. I was certain. It was as if someone had whispered some absolute truth in my ear, a feeling of goodness that comforted me and in that moment I knew—I was going to live. I was going to survive.

You spent eight months at the Beit T'Shuvah treatment center in Los Angeles. Could you talk about that journey: how you dealt with the death of your son, Lorenzo, how you dealt with your own past, and how you started to build a new life in recovery?

I was one of those dope fiends that would sneer at the idea of rehab, but when I got to the Beit T’Shuvah treatment center I was so eager to be there. I told myself, I am going to do whatever it takes to work this program. I really went in there open minded, with an open heart. I knew I had to deal with the death of my son and the amount of guilt that I felt because I had fought for him in a custody battle and brought him to Los Angeles. I wasn’t a good father. I let him run around and do what he wanted and I was doing speed at the time. He ended up joining a gang, Sangra, the same gang I was in as a young vato in the San Gabriel barrio. When he got murdered, there was so much pain, and I felt tremendous guilt. I tried to block him out of my mind completely, and I was able to do that with heroin but in Beit T’Shuvah I learned to accept death in general, to accept it as a necessary aspect of life and to accept the death of my son, to own my responsibility in all of it and to be able to live with that. So from that point on I decided to live my life as if Lorenzo was watching me, to do everything I could to make him proud. I was sentenced to 12 months but they let me go home after eight months and, even though I am not a licensed therapist, they gave me a group of young people, mostly heroin addicts, to counsel. My work at Beit T’Shuvah is volunteer based but about a year ago I was hired to run a group at another treatment center in Los Angeles. For me, this is a spiritual program, so I wanted to share my experience about faith. When I felt that faith, in the ambulance, I believed that that faith came from God, because we don’t have the faith to believe in these types of things, in miracles, we just don’t have it, but God gave me the faith. I believe that and I live by that.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing a young person trying to recover from opioid addiction in this day and age?

It’s really a dangerous time right now. I can think of eight or nine young addicts that relapsed and died of an overdose. The biggest challenge is the availability. Some of them hadn’t even graduated to heroin use but a lot of them did because their source for pills had run out. The amount of opioid pills out there on the streets is ridiculous. It’s so easy to get. It almost feels harmless, popping a pill or crushing it down and snorting it compared to the actual act of shooting a needle into your arm but the effects are exactly the same, and the results are the same. Of course I talk to them about my story, a living testament to the trouble and misery that drug addiction causes but I really try and focus on the last 10 years of my life, which have been amazing, but my recovery started at 50 years of age! I tell them, Look at how young you are, what are the things you love? What are your dreams? What are the things you want to accomplish? Imagine if you could get a hold of these principles and do these steps and get focused and change your life now and achieve success, not at 50, but while you are still young.

You are coming up to 10 years in recovery. When you reflect on this decade, how does it compare to your using years?

These past 10 years have been the most amazing years of my whole life. I’ve gotten closer to God and I’m doing the best work that I’ve ever done in my life. Now I’m able to live my life, to just be me, without a drug or alcohol taking over my mind and my body. It would have been nice to realize these things when I was younger, maybe I would have accomplished more, but I’m really satisfied with where I’m at now, and I look forward to however many more years I have left.

Freddy Negrete and Steve Jones are the authors of Smile Now, Cry Later: Guns, Gangs and Tattoos—My Life in Black and Gray, published by Seven Stories Press, New York. Freddy works at the Shamrock Social Club on Sunset Boulevard with his son, Isaiah. Follow Freddy on Instagram.

"Tattoo," a special exhibition covering 5,000 years of tattoo culture and featuring some of Freddy Negrete's work, is at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County through April 15, 2018.

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Steve Jones grew up on the wind-swept island of Anglesey, North Wales and graduated, in Chemistry, at North London University. His first foray into writing was as a contributor to the Hamburg-based digital design magazine, 'Page.' In the mid-90s he published his first book, a guide to troubleshooting the Apple Macintosh (International Thomson Publishing). His first play, Cracked Eggs was staged at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court, London. He later co-produced Cracked Eggs as a short film featuring Jared Harris (King George VI in 'The Crown'), which screened at the Austin, Boston Underground, LA Shorts, and London Independent film festivals. His subsequent plays Baloopa’s Journey and Hero & Zero were awarded arts council grants in England, Austria, and Lithuania. Steve is currently working on a novel set in Liverpool and London. You can check out his vinyl collection and what he's reading/read here: