Guest Blog: Tattooing in Australia's Prisons
07:36 AM
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Jail tattoos hold a fascination for me -- the techniques, the symbolism, and the risks.  I love reading the stories that surround them. And so I had to share this Tattooing in Prison piece by writer Fareed Kaviani. Fareed photographed and interviewed Johnny "Halves" (named for selling half caps of heroin at full price), who talks about how, in 1991, while jacked up on amphetamines, he and his friends stole a car and robbed a bank in Perth, only to be caught soon after. In Australian prisons, Johnny got by tattooing fellow inmates and getting tattooed himself. Those tattoo tales make for a compelling interview.

Originally published in the wonderful Things & Ink magazine, Fareed's article is excerpted below. You can read the full article here on his blog.

By Fareed Kaviani:

Johnny would tattoo people for extra smokes as well as draw up designs for everyone just to pass the time. All of his prison tattoos distinguish moments during his incarceration, he tells me. Often, these moments are quite macabre.

'Like I did that one in J division,' he said while pointing to a tattoo of prison bars, 'I ended up in the psychiatric division. You know, having drugs every day for four years and then all of a sudden no drugs, I was gone; I was hearing ants fart.'

When he arrived in J division, an inmate approached and asked if he would kill him for a pack of White Ox tobacco.

'That was his way of finding out if I wanted to hurt him or not. Another guy was so messed up he chopped his own dick off. The medical staff sewed it back on so he thought, I'll show you, and chopped it off again and flushed it down the toilet!'

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Owing to a dearth of academic studies, acquiring conclusive quantitative data on the frequency of tattooing in Australian prisons is beyond the bounds of possibility, especially given that tattooing in Australian prisons is illegal. If inmates are discovered giving or receiving tattoos, internal disciplinary processes are adopted.

Such disciplinary processes were enforced against Johnny.

'It was to my understanding that tattooing was considered defacing government property. So when the prison officers caught me, I was sentenced to serve seven more days.  But that didn't stop me. I used to love tattooing in jail. Loved it. Especially when I got away with it. The prison staff can't control it; it's a culture thing.'

Although prisoners were often caught in the act and stripped of all tattooing contraband, the prison officers were regularly outsmarted.

'Just to smuggle ink in, people would put it up their arse. If there wasn't ink, we'd burn rubber from a shoe, burn it to a crisp, put some water in it, sometimes I'd even spit in it, mix it up: and you've got your ink. Or you could use charcoal. The machine was made from cassette player motors, a toothbrush, a button, a biro case, and a sewing needle. That needle would be used on up to twenty people.'

This extremely unhygienic method exposed prisoners to noxious infections.

'It's all about getting the ink in, and keeping it in. If it gets infected, you can't seek medical attention because you're not allowed to get tattoos.'

'When I got out of prison, I had these grand plans of opening a tattoo studio, but I ended up with my own lawn-mowing company. Now that I'm out, I do tattoos at my house as a hobby. I love it. I get excited. I've got guys who used to be in prison would come over to get the ones they got done inside covered up. Just because they're different people now, they want it covered.'

'I just do them for fifty bucks an hour, but sometimes, if I see me mates, I tell them to stay clean for six months and I'll do them one for nuthin.'

Read more by Fareed Kaviani on

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