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.
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!'
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 www.the4thwall.net.
I'm excited about the new work coming from Australia's own Ran Maclurkin, who is renowned for his "Art Brut" style, although he rather prefers the term he coined: "Abstract Noir." Tattooing since 2006, Ran describes his predominant body of work as "childlike and primal" -- the way he began drawing as a child.
To see more tattoos and fine art by Ran, check his site, and Facebook page.
Ran is also a featured artist in Black Tattoo Art 2 (copies are still available for purchase).
Earlier this month, tattoo news headlines included a story of how an Australian politician proposed a ridiculous anti-tattoo law that seemed like the work of another conservative crackpot. However, it turns out, that it is indeed something to pay attention to and fight. Sharron Campbell, a solicitor in Queensland, who works in privacy and information rights, explains here how serious this issue is and how all of us around the world can get involved.
By Sharron Campbell
Down in Queensland--land of beers, barbies, and shrimps to throw on them--a politician has proposed that anyone who gets a tattoo should be registered with the government. He thinks this will somehow stop bikie gang money laundering. Natural first reaction is to laugh: a law that ridiculous could never happen, right?
Australia has limited rights to free speech, there's no Bill of Rights, there's no general right to privacy. And in New South Wales, the State just south of Queensland, they passed laws just as bad as what's been proposed.
If you want to tattoo in NSW, you have to:
Once the wheels of government start grinding out a Bill it will be too late to stop it. Wherever you are in the world you can help, before it's law, before it goes any further, by telling the Queensland government this is not okay.
Find out how at www.tattoosarenotacrime.net.
Ok, this story is going to dwarf our tee and print giveaway, but hell, I'll share:
A 46-year-old mixed martial arts trainer from Liverpool, Australia ended up winning a full dragon backpiece (shown above left) modeled after that of a video game character (shown right) in the SEGA Yakuza franchise. SEGA Australia held the contest about a year ago to promote the new Yakuza 4 game, which drops today along with the tattoo unveiling.
The backpiece was tattooed by Josh Roelink, of Tatudharma Studios in Sydney, over six months in four-hour sessions with three-week intervals. See images of the tattoo process here.
Josh did not design the artwork for the game -- Horitomo of State of Grace did -- but Josh got his approval to re-create it. There's a great interview with Horitomo from a few years back in which he discusses the design work for SEGA but also his tattoo art and thoughts on Japanese tattoo culture. Worth a click.
For more on Horitomo, check this profile excerpt in Tattoo Artist Magazine. And for more on Josh, watch his interview with BMEtv.
In early May, I wrote about Geoff Ostling, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Australia who pledged to donate his full bodysuit -- which he calls "All the Flowers of a Sydney Garden" -- to the National Gallery in Canberra.
Click here for an extensive slideshow of that beautiful suit.
While the press was focused on logistics like taxidermy, legal bequests and funeral arrangements, the artist who created the work was largely relegated to a short quote, despite the 20 years of work put into it.
That artist is eX de Medici.
Since the 1970s, eX de Medici has been painting, photographing, and performing; she began tattooing in the 90s. Her work has been exhibited in Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, among many others.
Indeed, it's her fine art that has garnered her the most press and accolades in her native Australia and abroad, despite the hype around her tattoos possibly hanging in a museum next to her watercolors.
In this video interview, which I highly recommend, she talks about her work, including a series where she studied moths and other insects to inform her paintings. She also discusses her ever-present gun and skull imagery.
Perhaps, the most interesting is her take on tattooing and it's influence on her fine art. However, she makes it clear that she does not consider tattooing a fine art itself. She says it's "more naughty than art," explaining that the process of tattooing, the pain, blood, time constraints, etc. lends tattoos to more "emblematic" representation -- although she notes the difference between emblematic tattoos and those full bodysuits she's created.
She adds that tattooing is collaborative -- the artist works for somebody and a compromise is reached to create a design "in a compressed way."
Interesting arguments no matter where you are on the "tattoo as fine art" fence.
The video and link to eX de Medici's site was sent to me by my friend Zhan, a fan of her work upon first meeting in her tattoo studio Deus ex Machina in Canberra. He says:
"I met her in '96 when my old friend Megan was apprenticing with her and was struck by her deep intelligence, quirkiness, her love of tattooing bikers and her ability to discuss anything with anyone. I think we spent all my sessions talking about antique Persian rugs!
See more of eX de Medici's fine art works here. And for more on Geoff Ostling, check the documentary on his quest to hang post-mortem in a museum, entitled Anatomy.
[Thanks again, Zhan!]