How Black-and-Grey tattoos went from the jailhouse to mainstream.
Black and Grey, sometimes known as “jailhouse” or “joint-style,” is a tattoo style. This style originated in prisons due to not having easy access to tattoo ink or a tattoo gun. Inmates got creative and used cigarette ashes or pen ink to produce tattoos. Rather than a tattoo gun, they would often use a makeshift tool out of guitar strings and the motor from a tape player. The ink was originally diluted using water to produce various shades of ink. Because tattoos were banned in prisons, this all had to be done in secret and under the radar.
Unlike the thick black lines of traditional styles, black and grey tattoos have finer lines, and subtle shading. They can be so detailed that they look like black and white photographs.
During the late 70’s and early 80’s the art-form began to be seen in professional tattoo shops, starting in Latin American neighborhoods in L.A. often a former inmate who learned tattooing in lockup would be able to support themselves with the craft the they get out. They crafted images from local inspiration, catholic themes were common.
61-year-old Freddy Negrete is one of the artists responsible for the growth of this style outside of prison. He says it wouldn’t exist without “prison ingenuity.” And, he should know. Negrete’s been in and out of lock- up since he was a teenager. His book, Smile Now, Cry Later: Guns, Gangs, And Tattoos, My Life In Black And Gray is a great read, he writes about his experiences with gang life, and how tattoos were a part of that. He is an individual that has been greatly affected by this lifestyle, even having lost a son to gang violence.
Black and Grey tattoos have since entered the mainstream. Starting with a tattoo parlor called Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland, in east LA. Many of their clients began asking for “la pinta” style tattoos, with fine lines and black and grey shading. They changed their tattoo guns to have a single needle. Artists began adapting the style, using new themes in their own work such as Japanese style or blending in some color to pop against a black and grey background.
Starting from humble origins in prisons, this style has grown and will continue to grow. As more artists adopt the style, the boundaries will continue to be pushed, as artists add their own background and creativity to it.
For more on Black and Grey Style, check out the following articles: