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 pinup girls."

Carrera grew up in Miami's Cutler Ridge, where his father, a roofer, would bring him and his brother to work. "When I smell tar, even today, it reminds me of childhood playgrounds," he says, laughing. 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 5, 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, 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. On August 27, 1993, at a remote location outside of Homestead, he and 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 probation, he again drew police attention, court records show, when he and another man 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 jail, but his case never made it to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty, received credit for time served, and was released on probation. "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."

After serving an apprenticeship at the Silhouette Tattoo Parlor on Bird Road in Miami, he opened OchoPlacas in January 2002, investing $30,000 in the business. "It was a huge risk," Carrera says. "I basically taught myself by reading books and tattooing and eventually started painting on canvas in 2003 as a result."

Today, he has steered clear of the law, and his business is thriving. OchoPlacas, named for Calle Ocho, is tucked into a block boasting an auto body shop, a salsa dance studio, a beauty salon, and a couple of hot-sheet in-and-out motels. Inside the 400-square-foot skin parlor, the walls brim with original art by Carrera and his crew: John Vale, Javier Betancourt, Vincent Vasconez, and Leo Valencia. They charge $150 to $200 an hour for their tattoos. Medium-sized tattoos require nine to 12 hours of work, often accomplished over three visits.

There's more than just tattoos here. Colorful Tiki heads lean like silent sentinels from several corners. And Carrera's acrylic paintings of anguished, disembodied heads are eerie and evocative. They suggest he has confronted and exorcized his demons. Outside, Carrera and his cohorts have placed a pair of old-fashioned rocking chairs where patrons share Cuban coffee while awaiting their turn.

Ivan Naser, a soft-spoken 40-year-old software executive who restores antiques as a hobby, got inked by Carrera this past June. He says he saw Caravaggio's painting of Medusa two decades ago at the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. Ever since, he has wanted a tattoo of the gory Gorgon's head. Recently, Carrera rendered a softball-sized version of the striking image on Naser's right shoulder. "Jose has a masterful hand," he says. "As a fine-art aficionado, I was impressed that my tattoo was not so much a reinterpretation and that Jose's keen eye is reflected in his work."

Carrera works with ferocity of purpose. "I've tattooed rappers like Lil Wayne, who likes Basquiat's artwork," he says. "I've worked on him three times and done some background stuff on his shoulders and arms, morphing with other tattoo artists' work."

He has also worked on rapper/producer Birdman several times. "I've done some fancy car logos, the Louis Vuitton symbol, and the money sign on Birdman, who's great to work with," Carrera says.

OchoPlacas' other tattoo artists are also popular with well-known South Florida artists such as Wendy Wischer, who's known for her ethereal installations. "John Vale tattooed the planetary orbit of Venus and Mars as they revolve around the sun on my lower back," Wischer explains. "His work is great."

These days, Carrera often spends time with his stepkids, reveling in the role of family man. He credits his ex-girlfriend, Yumila Gonzales, whom he lived with for eight years, and her three children with tamping the wick on his powder keg. "I grew up with a nasty attitude," he says, laughing. "Yumila and my kids have softened me around the edges quite a bit."

On July 23, Carrera and his OchoPlacas crew will host a "305 Day" celebration at the shop, offering $35 tats for folks eager to represent the Big Orange in their own unique fashion. "We are creating small designs featuring images that remind us of our hometown," he says. "It's an opportunity for us to give back to the community."

"Jose has always been a good kid," his father sighs. "But he had to learn his lesson the hard way. He was like a moth, circling the flame and getting closer and closer, until he finally got burned and learned the hard way to turn away."

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