Two highly engaging pieces on prison tattoos were published this week:
On Monday, Flavorwire posted a photo gallery of prison tattoos that are part of Araminta de Clermont's Life After series (which includes the image above). Clermont photographed tattooed members of South Africa's Numbers prison gangs after their release. She explores questions of identity and stigma, possession and self-expression, and "how it would be if we all had our past mistakes permanently emblazoned across our faces."
I highly recommend reading Clermont's full discussion of Life After on her gallery page. Here's an excerpt:
Tattoos may convey rankings within the hierarchy of the Number, may be testimonies to a crime committed, or may sometimes be a rather more personal statement: like a message of blame, threat, or regret, or a tribute to a loved one. A 'Numbers' gangster can read another's life story simply through the markings he has. The gallows symbol signifies that the bearer faced the death sentence, before it was outlawed. Many of the most highly tattooed men that I photographed, had been given the death sentence, before Mandela's reprieve, and thus they had never believed they would be released, never imagining 'a life after'.More on the work can be found via this BBC audio slideshow.
Then, yesterday, The Independent and Gambit of New Orleans published an interview by Dege Legg (photos by Travis Gauthier) with Victor "Versus" Sandifer, a prison tattooer who spent 21 years behind bars. In the Q&A, Sandifer discusses how he got into jailhouse tattooing, making a "tattoo gun," and symbolism behind prison tattoo imagery, among other interesting tidbits. Here's a taste from the Gambit:
G: Who were your best customers in prison?
VS: I tattooed everybody: Mexicans, Chinese, white, black, all kinds of people. I did them all.
G: What kind of tattoos would they gravitate toward?
VS: Depends on the race. Black guys want gangster stuff: names, faces, gang affiliations, pictures of dead homies. Stuff that represents where they're from. Mexicans like religious imagery, lowrider and vato stuff. Girls, cars, Virgin Marys, Jesus. White dudes go for anything: dragons, knives, guns, swastikas. All kinds of weird stuff like that. Depends on the white guy you're talking to.
G: Lot of Aryan Brotherhood?
VS: You got a lot of diehard AB'ers out there, but you also got a lot of old-school Southern rockers that just want a ZZ Top tattoo.
G: What's the meaning behind teardrops?
VS: Depends on the state you're in. Some people wear them to count time under their left eye. Under the right, it signifies a dead homeboy. For some it's the number of people they've killed. In Louisiana, it doesn't mean as much--they just wear teardrops to be having them. In Texas, a lot of tattoos are gang related.Read more of the interview here.
In a time when mass media has finally been looking at tattooing as a fine art (reality shows excluded), it's interesting to see their current approach to stigmatized tattooing. They are both great reads. Check 'em.