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Guns, Gangs, Tattoos & Recovery…
Freddy Negrete is a legendary tattoo artist based in Hollywood, CA. He’s been profiled on numerous media and has tattooed numerous celebrities, musicians and sport personalities.
Freddy was orphaned at the age of two when his mother and father, both Pachuco gangsters, went to jail. After a youth of foster care and boys’ homes, Freddy went down the same path as his parents and lived a cycle of gangs, drugs, and incarceration.
Freddy honed his skills as a tattooist in prison and is now a world-renowned pioneer of black and grey realism. Freddy endured countless ups and downs with addiction and suffered deadly health issues, but he asked for healing and, after a pivotal moment, he received it.
He is now clean and sober and helping others in the community get out of the dangerous life he once lived.
CLEAN DATE: Dec 20th, 2006
Listen to Freddy’s story now!
Here are a few highlights from our interview. To get the full story please join us on the podcast now!
Freddy has new focus on his art since sobriety. During his using years, things were different. He had a lot of work to do to get where he is today.
Freddy’s day begins with devotion and prayer. He goes to work at 2pm and tries to get two big tattoos done each night in his sober shop. He finishes around midnight to 2am each night.
Freddy leads group therapies at a couple of rehab centers. His home meeting is at his temple. Freddy says his Shabbat is like AA because everyone there is involved in recovery. His gangster mother was actually Jewish, part of the community that lived among the Hispanics in East LA.
The First Time
The first time Freddy tried a substance, he was twelve years old. He was living in a foster home. They went for a family vacation camping, and his foster sister’s boyfriend (who Freddy remembers being “a real scum bag”), asked him if Freddy had tried drugs. Freddy hadn’t, but lied and said he had, so the guy gave him a red devil and let him try some marijuana. It wasn’t what he expected. Freddy got sick and ended up ruining the whole vacation for everybody.
My first time getting high was not a good experience.
Freddy spent his life as a cholo gangster. He went from foster homes to boys’ homes and spent most of his years in juvenile confinement. The older boys in the home got into heroin and they would be nodding off, too high to be involved in all the gang activities. Freddy looked down on heroin.
Years later, heroin became seduced him anyway.
Freddy was always in trouble and doing time. As a youth, he was sent to a program for the worst of juvenile criminals. The staff there had a policy of “if you guys don’t kill each other, we’ll let you do whatever you want.”
The inmates got plans for tattoo guns from another prison. They built them from the motors of cassette recorders. This is when Freddy discovered his future vocation.
Freddy inherited artistic flair from his father who had also been an artist. Freddy developed his ability in jail doing chicano art and tattooing people every day–even the staff members.
I always thought I was going to be a thug. Not being one never crossed my mind.
When Freddy got out, he set up shop in his own home. He later went on to work with jack Rudy and Ed hardy, which changed his life and put his gang-inspired style of black and gray realism in the spotlight.
Freddy went through the extreme cycles of addiction multiple times. He became addicted to heroin, and then converted to Christianity. He would stay straight for a period of time, but always fall back into the same pattern of using. He went back to college and earned a degree in Biblical Literature, only to relapse again.
After his son was murdered in a gang-related shooting, Freddy sunk into a deep depression. It was the very gang Freddy had been in, and the people his son was running with were the kids of Freddy’s old gang buddies. He felt his son had followed in his footsteps and was devastated.
In the meantime, Freddy’s health was on a steep decline. He had developed congestive heart failure that had been poorly treated because he had been using so many drugs, that he never took his medication. He almost didn’t survive his next stint in the county jail. He had to gasp for air and couldn’t sleep lying down or he wouldn’t be able to breath.
I was certain I was going to die in there.
He knew in his heart that he had been the one who was responsible for his condition. He was depressed and still filled with regret for what happened to his son. He didn’t want to die after the mess he made of his life. He felt he wanted more time to make something of himself. He strained to climb up a prison stairwell, the only place where he could be alone. He asked God for a little more time to redeem himself and be an example for his living son. In that moment, he felt a pure and simple connection with God, and he some how knew he would never use again.
The next morning he had a heart attack.
Instead of taking it as a sign that God had refused his prayers, Freddy felt even more faith that he was going to live. Miraculously, he began improving. His enlarged heart shrank. He was able to sleep lying down again. He even impressed his doctor by being able to do a few pushups. Freddy felt that God healed his heart and had given him more time.
What kept Freddy from getting clean?
One of the biggest hangups with Freddy was the God aspect. He sees it in newcomers in his groups and tries to steer them away from religion into their own personal relationships with God.
I know I’m never going to use again, but now I need to find out how.
The Spiritual Awakening
Freddy’s awakening was on the prison staircase when he called to God for help. His faith became steadfast when even after his prayer was answered with another heart attack, he somehow knew he would be okay.
There’s more to it than just staying sober.
Favorite Book and Video
The first book that comes to Freddy’s mind is The Holy Thief, written by an ex-criminal Mark Borovitz who became his rabbi.
Freddy was also tremendously affected by a video called Ring of Fire Dream Wanderers of Borneo, a documentary about a nomadic people in Indonesia who rely on God for their survival in a real way.
It’s helpful for us to see that God can work in your life in a supernatural way in the daily.
You’re going to have tough times, but you don’t have to get loaded because of it. Life is difficult, but it’s a journey. If you can see your tough times as a learning experience, then you can stand up and stay sober through it. Take joy in it.
For the Newcomer
Freddy Negrete says that when he looks back on every hardship in his life, he can see that drugs and alcohol were involved in some way. When you get sober, all the problems caused because of using will be gone, but if what you want to do is change your life and leave behind the struggle with drugs and alcohol, it’s going to take a lot of hard work. You must be prepared to fight.
Do whatever it takes, and do whatever your told. Just do it, like the Nike logo.
Smile Now, Cry Later: Guns, Gangs, and Tattoos-My Life in Black and Gray – Freddy Negrete
The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light – by Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Alan Eisenstock
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Disclaimer – The opinions shared on this show reflect those of the individual speaker and not of any 12 step fellowship as a whole and though we discuss 12 step recovery and the impact it has had in our lives we do not promote or endorse any 12 step anonymous program.
What a awesome story on so many levels. Hope Love and Blessings.
PS was there a cat in the background?
Awesome, thanks Jil!! And oh yes, that was Freddy’s cat in the back ground…hahaha!