By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Jose Carrera perfected his art in jail. "I made my first tattoo gun using a Bic lighter and a small motor I stripped from an old Walkman cassette player," he says. "I used the spring inside as the needle and would burn Styrofoam cups to collect the black smoke and mix it with water for my ink."
At first, he did what he calls mostly "street, gangster stuff." Then other inmates discovered he could draw, and Carrera became popular on the cellblock. "I would tattoo phrases for people I bunked with, like 'God Forgive Me' or 'Only God Can Judge,'" he recollects.
That was more than a decade ago. After completing time for attempted first-degree murder and other charges, the handsome, dark-haired man with a compact middleweight boxer's frame opened a Little Havana skin parlor called OchoPlacas. Since then, he and four associates have done tattoo work for Lil Wayne and Birdman, among others. They serve a mostly professional clientele, including football players, doctors, lawyers, artists, and others who wait up to two months to get inked.
Their artwork is extraordinary, often reminiscent of masters such as Basquiat, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Albrecht Durer. "Those are some of my influences," he explains. "But I also like work by Michael Hussar, Boris Vallejo's fantasy stuff, and Gil Elvgren's pin-up girls."
Carrera grew up in Cutler Ridge, where his father, a roofer, would bring him along with a brother to work. "When I smell tar, even today, it reminds me of childhood playgrounds," he laughs. As a boy, he loved to draw and paint. His father, Victor, an immigrant from Ecuador, didn't encourage this creative side. The problem, Victor recalls, is that the kid's preferred canvases were his body and the family home's walls.
"Since he was five, he liked to paint his arms and the walls of his room," Victor says. "Jose learned to draw before learning to write. I tried to beat the habit out of him, but it didn't take."
While he was attending Southridge Senior High, Carrera began tagging walls with the Miami Top Writers crew, which was made up of classmates and neighborhood kids in their teens. That sparked his first run-in with police, at age 16. "Once, while I was painting an abandoned building in the Fontainebleau area near Sweetwater, we got busted by the cops. I had a green Rustoleum spray can in my hand, and the cop asked me what I was doing with it.
"When I answered that I was painting... he took the can from me, shook it, then spray-painted my shirt." Carrera got off with a warning.
But things got worse. He dropped out of Southridge and in early 1993 got mixed up with neighborhood thugs who were involved in drug rip-offs around town. In August that year, at a remote location outside Homestead, he and a group of four others burst into a home, court records show. When the men inside locked themselves in a bedroom, someone fired a shotgun.
One of the victims was hit and then called police. Soon, all five invaders were picked up in a nearby field.
Two months later, while out on bond, he again drew police attention, court records show, when he and another man, Eduardo Vega, allegedly beat a guy on Ocean Court in South Beach and took his wallet, which held $63.
While in jail awaiting trial, Carrera says, he received a phone call from his older brother, Victor Jr., who told him he faced a potential life sentence for his crimes. "I felt completely lost, like I was dead to the world," Carrera says. "At the time, my bunkmate tried to cheer me up with a Bible verse. When I fell asleep, my father came to me in a dream. When I woke up, I read a Bible passage that said if I wanted to return to my father's house, I should accept the Lord as my God.
"After that, jail became like a slumber party for me."
Carrera spent four years in prison, but his case never made it to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty, received credit for time served, and was released on probation, he says. "It was the worst feeling. I was like, Do I really have to admit to this?" he rues.
After he was released, he rejoined his father as a roofer. "When he got out, one of the first things he did was give one of my workers a tattoo of a saint," the elder Carrera recalls. "I told him that if he was serious about his art, he should try to make a living at it."
He served an apprenticeship at the Silhouette Tattoo Studio on Bird Road and later opened OchoPlacas in 2002, investing $30,000 in the business. "It was a huge risk," Carrera says. "I didn't have a lot of career choices and didn't know much about business, but I knew I was good at creating tattoos and my art.
"I never had the patience for school or to sit still and get into art school... I basically taught myself by reading books and tattooing and eventually started painting on canvas in 2003 as a result."