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Everything You Didn’t Know About Black and Gray Tattoos

Rather than the black outlines and bright colors of traditional-style tattoos, black and gray tattoos are characterized by thin lines with lots of subtle gray shading and, of course, black and gray ink only. They’re very popular these days. Think of Justin Bieber. He’s got black and gray tattoos. They actually used to be called “jailhouse tattoos” or “prison-style tattoos” back when I was growing up because the whole style originated from prison tattoos.

Prison tattoos are usually done with a single needle, not a stack of needles because the inmates don’t have access to true tattooing needles. They're likely to use a piece of a sewing needle or even a guitar string. There are plenty of guitars in prison. You can rig the end of a high e-string, the highest string on a guitar. Just cut off the very end of that string and that makes a perfect little needle, at least when you're incarcerated. You can also use the end of a scissor or the edge of a ballpoint pen. And with these makeshift needles, you can hand poke.

The most popular method, beyond hand poking involved cassette players. You could rig the rotary spindle to move the needle up and down! And the fellas in there would make black ink using shoe polish, pelican ink, or from any number of things. Not the healthiest approach, but they’d do whatever they could to get the pigments in. Then if you water those pigments down, you get gray. So it's usually only black and gray; they don't have access to other colors there. Regular paint just won’t do.

Today, black and gray tattoos have been elevated to artisanal levels. Everything’s artisanal these days. I was just reading about artisanal chicken wings! Maple-walnut-bacon-mango chicken wings. Actually, I got that wrong. It's not a recipe, it’s a band. I think they’ll be performing at Coachella this year.

Anyways, this style of tattoo became really popular, largely because of the artist Freddy Negrete. Amazing tattoo artist. He brought the style out of prison and into the world. People started asking for “prison-style” tattoos at this shop called Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland over in East L.A., so they changed their machines to only use one needle and got cookin’. Freddy Negrete started working there in the late ‘70s and the “prison-style” just blew up. More recently, another artist, Chuey Quintanar, has taken this style to Museum of Modern Art level. So, if you’re into black and gray tattoos, look these guys up. You might learn a little history behind your next tattoo before you get it.
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