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.
A Kansas man who is charged with murder asked the court to either remove or cover up his large neck/throat tattoo -- a tattoo of the word MURDER in mirror image (it's art just for him!) in big shaky block letters. Ok, I'll let that sink in for a while.What do you think? Share your thoughts on the Needles & Sins FB group page under this post link.
This isn't a post on bad life choices, however. For me, especially as a lawyer, I'm interested in the issue of justice and what constitutes a "fair trial." According to the Great Bend Tribune, the attorney of Jeffrey Wade Chapman is asserting that there would be no fair trial if a jury were to see that tattoo (a tattoo that was done over a year before the crime he's accused of). The Tribune wrote:
According to the motion filed by defense attorney Kurt Kerns, Wichita, Chapman has asked the jail to allow a professional tattoo artist to remove and/or cover up the tattoo across his neck that is a mirror image of the word "murder" in capital letters. The motion notes it is a large tattoo that cannot be easily hidden with clothing.The State replied that they don't allow tattooists to practice in jails [Kansas Administrative Code 69-15-14 states, "tattoo artists shall not practice at any location other than a licensed facility," which meets specific hygiene standards set by the Kansas Board of Cosmetology.]
And so, today, an agreement was reached that Chapman would wear a turtleneck in court. Problem solved!
But the issue of having prejudicial tattoos on view in a criminal trial has been much more difficult to address when they are facial tattoos -- and there are A LOT of gang/criminal/racist facial tattoos out there.
As I wrote about back in 2009 in my Tattoos as Evidence in Criminal Trials post, a Florida judge granted a motion to have the state pay a cosmetologist $150 a day to cover the Neo-Nazi facial tattoos of a man who was facing the death penalty for murder, stating "the tattoos are potentially offensive and could influence a jury's opinion." Naturally, the act of tax payer money going to a make-up artist to help a racist accused of murder didn't sit well with many people. The NY Times had interesting coverage of that case -- as well as a description of the cover-up process.
For more of discussion on tattoos as evidence, here's a list of cases from my 2009 post:
In Dawson v Delaware, the US Supreme Court said the defendant's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the prosecution admitted his Aryan Brotherhood tattoo into evidence -- the murder he committed wasn't racially motivated and so the hate group association and tattoo were not relevant.
However, in Wood v State, the Eleventh Court of Appeals in Texas ruled that the prosecution did not violate a defendant's First Amendment rights when commenting on his tattoos -- text on each eyelid that said "Lying Eyes." The court said that, unlike the Dawson case, the tattoos were not used to show gang affiliation but "to show his disregard for the truth and his moral character. A person's tattoos can reflect his character and demonstrate a motive for his crime." For interesting commentary on this case, read what Eugene Volokh has to say.
In NY, the state's highest court ruled in 2004 that Nazi tattoos could be used as evidence that a defendant committed a hate crime in The People v. Slavin. In that case, Slavin was tried for luring two Mexican laborers into an abandoned warehouse and killing them. During the trial, to show hate was a motivating factor, the prosecution offered jurors a slideshow of Slavin's tattoos including black swastikas, a white fist and a skinhead kicking a large-nosed man wearing a skullcap. Slavin appealed saying that this violated his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The NY Court of Appeals disagreed saying:
"We conclude that defendant was not "compelled ... to be a witness against himself" within the meaning of the privilege. The tattoos were physical characteristics, not testimony forced from his mouth. However much the tattoos may have reflected defendant's inner thoughts, the People did not compel him to create them in the first place."
This week, one of the biggest tattoo news items was the deportation of a British tourist from Sri Lanka stemming from her Buddha tattoo, which the country's authorities deemed disrespectful to Buddhism. According to the BBC on Tuesday:
Naomi Coleman was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the capital Colombo after authorities spotted the tattoo on her right arm.This isn't the first time a Buddha tattoo raised problems in Sri Lanka. According to NPR, about a year ago, another British tourist was banned from entering the country for the very same reason. With both cases, the tattoo collectors were tattooed with the Buddha renderings out of respect and devotion, and yet, for the largely Buddhist nation, it was perceived as quite the opposite and taboo.
This story had me thinking of the recent Vice article "Greece's Muslim Immigrants are Ashamed of Their Prison Tattoos" by Alexia Tsagari. That article tells the story of six Muslim men who had tattooed themselves or voluntarily got tattooed while in prison, to later regret their tattoos because of the religious prohibitions and cultural stigma in the largely Islamic countries they emigrated from prior to arriving in Greece.
One of the men, Moshen, told Tsagari:
In prison, it's either them or you. You have to stay strong and struggle to survive on a daily basis. Some fight with their fists, others with their minds. I struggled daily to remain human. For this reason I carved two stars on my chest--a reminder that I wouldn't put my hands up, that I wouldn't surrender even if it meant my life would be in danger. Deep in my soul there are some thoughts and images, some secrets, that words cannot express. I turned these secrets into poems and drawings and had them engraved on my body.Tsagari writes that most Muslims consider tattoos forbidden--haram--and the consequences of getting tattooed can be severe: "In Iran, the government dubs anyone with a tattoo a criminal, and the punishment for getting one can be up to six months in prison and a hundred lashings." However, she explains, "Today, in most Muslim countries, tattoos are considered makrouh--that is, they aren't illegal per se, but it's generally best to avoid them."
Most recently in the US, there was the stir over this Tattooed Jesus ad, whereby a vocal contingent in Lubbock, Texas found a Christian organization's attempt at appealing to the youth was deemed "blasphemous."
[Interestingly, the tattoo found on a 1,300 year-old mummy was most likely a Christian devotional tattoo, so religious tattoos are reaaalllly old news.]
As with the British tourists kicked out of Sri Lanka, so many of these tattoos are inked out of love and respect, and so they warrant acceptance rather than punishment.
In an age when anyone can grab a starter tattoo kit on Amazon and eBay and start drilling, those old prison-style DIY machines still hold some magic. The ingenuity of taking found objects and creating a working instrument that creates art -- and the prison culture from which that ingenuity was born -- has inspired Goof Vermeulen, a production designer and art director in Amsterdam. He's created jailhouse tattoo "guns" -- in the same manner as they're fashioned in prison -- as works of art. A number of them also come in hand-made boxes and ink.
You find them here on Etsy for sale. And check more images on his Facebook page. As he says on his Esty page, the machines, although workable, are not meant to be used on skin but simply to be displayed as art. The online retailers already have the tattoo machine market covered for scratchers.
I'm having my morning coffee when my email dings and it's Refinery29.com telling me to check out the "Scott Campbell Makes a Prison Tattoo" video with the description below:
The vid follows Campbell around NYC while he searches for supplies to make a homemade "prison tattoo" gun, which consists of a nine-volt battery, a toothbrush, and masking tape, among other random things. Of course, Neistat [viral video virtuoso] wants a piece of the action, drug-deal-ishly meeting up with Scott in Tompkins Square Park to bare his forearm for his own "prison tattoo."[Actually, Scott tattoos another guy, not Neistat.]
And there's Scott buying batteries and a toothbrush and digging through garbage for the rest of the parts but all the while he's discussing tattoo art and his own experiences in a thoughtful and compelling way. I want to hate this. He just dug through a garbage can and will now open up someone's skin. Then there's the little voice inside of me saying, This is kinda cool, as a watch him talk and nonchalantly put the "gun" together. But then we get to the end and some dude shows up and sits down on a bench next to Scott in Tompkins Square Park--a bench upon which I've seen too many junkies having sex--and then I'm just thinking, Eww. I understand the hipster irony of getting a (rather well done) "Bless this Mess" tattoo in a place the homeless use as a toilet, but ... no, actually, I don't understand it.
Your thoughts? Share them on Facebook in the Needles & Sins group page under this post.
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.
Very cool to find BoingBoing's feature on MIR, the Russian criminal tattoo fashion company and Needles & Sins advertisers. [Many of you thought it was cool too, and we thank you for sending in the link.] In that post, co-owner Roman Belenky discusses his experience growing up in Russia surrounded by the tattoos and what inspired him to start the clothing line, which I thought was pretty interesting. Here's a taste from that part:
I was working in a tattoo shop and started noticing more and more people were coming in with the [Russian Criminal Tattoo] Encyclopaedia and asking to get an image from the books. We turned them away mostly because the shop was owned by Russians and we didn't think it was a good idea to tattoo most of the stuff from the books on someone that knows close to nothing about that world and sub-culture. At that time I thought it would be cool if I could offer those people a T-shirt with the image as a sort of "consolation prize." Plus a part of me also wanted to spread this fascinating Russian underground art to more people.On MIR's site and on their Etsy pages, they offer explanations of each design, although some like the one below don't really need much explaining. What the BoingBoing article doesn't mention is their new SHTRAFBAT military-inspired line where most of the items are vintage or reconstructed military surplus clothing silk screened or altered with the Russian designs. You can hit them up by clicking the banner of the right.
And speaking of criminal tattoos...
A collection of 60 tattooed skins (preserved in formaldehyde) taken largely from dead prisoners is the subject of a "photo story" by Katarzyna Mirczak called Preserving the Criminal Code.
According to Mirczak, the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, collected the skins "with a view to deciphering the code - among prisoners known as a 'pattern language'. By looking closely at the prisoners' tattoos, their traits, temper, past, place of residence or the criminal group in which they were involved could be determined."
Read more on the preserved skins and see more images, like the ones, above here.
[Via Morbid Anatomy. Thanks to Samantha of Haute Macabre. And Melina too!]
With the new Russian mob doc, Thieves By Law, causing some buzz at the Tribeca Film festival, criminal tattoos are back on the A List. Inspired by their symbolism, The Daily Tribeca came up with their own tattoo interpretations for the "Hollywood Gulag" with a little help from NYC tattooist Daniel Albrigo. It made me giggle.
Check Gawker for the larger version of this illustrated guide.
Tattoo by Swastika Freakshop
After spending most of last week at my Ohm-tastic yoga retreat, I came back feelin goooood, and so I promise a zen like news review, free of blogger snark but full of tattoo goodness.
To prove my tantric love, I wont even mock Miami Heat's Michael Beasley's new "Super Cool Beas" tattoo (and ganja love), nor say things like the Kat Von D concealer for Sephora "looks like an amazing product. If you like eczema." I'm too full of peace and oneness for that even if it does prove what I said about my own trial of the concealer (noted here).
So let's get on with the love fest ...
Check this 7x7 interview with Shawn Barber, where the painter and tattooist discusses his own love of the craft:
"Tattooing gives so much more than it takes. It allows an individual to acknowledge life with permanent markers. Getting tattooed is a leap of faith that reminds you of that exact time and place for the rest of your life."
This past weekend, Shawn was one of the many great artists working the Tattoo Hollywood Convention in LA, reported on by Modblog here and here.
Other conventions covered this weekend were Rhode Island's Rock the Ink, and the Alberta tattoo convention, where Lucky Diamond Rich -- the world's most tattooed person shown below -- stole the show.
Only more beautifully freaky than Lucky is this news item: "A man with a tattoo of Britney Spears' name on his arm or neck allegedly stole a Chihuahua with pink earrings from a South Florida gay bar." I'll just leave it at that, thank you.
But please explain why people with distinguishing tattoos continue to commit crimes. [Indeed, a Hitler tattoo will be used in a hate-crime trial.]
In Russia, however, hate symbols like the Nazi swastika, can be ordered removed on offenders. I disagree, if only because I like to know what kinda haters I'm dealing with. Tattoos can be a great personal filter for people you meet in life.
[Tattoos will also give you away if you try to have sex with your twin's girlfriend.]
For those who want a fresh star, British Columbia's Gang Task force will remove affiliate tattoos, but only for gang intel. The comments are particularly interesting. [Thanks, Brayden!]
Thankfully, some bod mod over-achievers were celebrated in the news this week: pierced and tattooed Olympians.
And finally, the bonus quiz: Guess the celebrity tattoos.
That's it this week. Namaste, friends.
The Michael Jackson tribute tattoos dominated the headlines while Rihanna created some buzz of her own by tattooing three people at East Side Ink in Manhattan, home to her favorite artist Bang Bang. Tattooists at the shop got Ri's signature umbrella with the letter 'R' underneath it. But the biggest treat was for the paparazzi: see more photos on INFDaily.
Alas, the sweet press for the studio has backfired because now the NYPD and the NYC Health Department are looking into Rihanna tattooing without a license -- a misdemeanor offense that could mean fines and loss of license for East Side's owner. It's not confirmed, however, whether the city has opened an investigation into the unlicensed tattooing.
In more illegal ink news, this dude was jailed for tattooing minors but it should've been for his "online tattooing school." Note to self: ask my next tattooist to see license and diploma from Bob's Tattoo School.
The problem with unlicensed tattooing is the risk of severe infection, never mind shitty umbrella art.
Perfect example: this tattoo gone wrong law suit [via NSFW Modblog] where three friends walked into a Morgan Hill, California shop and walked out with massive staph infections. One posted this puss-filled tattoo (below) on HelpMeSue.com, also noting they researched the studio and found it was not yet licensed by the health department. It would have been better, of course, if such research was done prior to dirty tattooing. The image is a reminder to do our homework on the artist and shop opening our skin.
Infection may be common at unlicensed shops but I wouldn't go as far as ex-MTV veejay Jancee Dunn's fear of "rampant hepatitis" -- the argument she gave her over-60 mom who decided to get tattooed. But the super cool mom ignored such drama and gave the best reason for wanting a tattoo -- simply because she liked it:
"I've passed midlife. Your generation thinks every action has to be fueled by some major psychological motive. You know what? I just want some art on my body. And I like ravens."They went to Shotsie's Tattoo in Wayne, NJ, a long time tattoo staple in NJ (fully licensed of course), and the Ink Shrink worked a raven on her wrist, which she loved. The rockin grandma's next plan is to head to Burning Man, and while her daughter remains horrified, I'm inspired. Jancee's book Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask is now out.
Ok, now to cleanse that icky tattoo image from ya head, behold the Beckhams:
I just licked my screen. Their Armani ad is hot. Less so, The Beckhams: 10 years of tattoos, Tom Cruise and malnutrition.
Further celeb hotness, Mena Suvari shows off her '13' tattoo.
But I gotta ask, What would prompt someone to get a Lady Gaga tattoo?
In more important news ...
Quebec Superior Court judge has ruled that a dress code for day care workers forcing employees to cover-up tattoos was in violation of their rights.Supported by the daycare worker union in Quebec, Nadine Bélisle can now show off the snake tattoo on her shoulder blade. The union president said "We agree that if a tattoo is sexist, racist or violent it should be camouflaged. But I don't see how children are going to be traumatized by a flower on someone's ankle." The lawyer for the daycare argued the board put the general ban in place so they did not have to make the decision of what tattoos are deemed suitable. The judge didn't dig that argument and found that the ban "rests on prejudices." The Globe and Mail further quotes the Judge Jean Bouchard:
Another reason to love Canada:
Eric has been getting tattooed for over 20 years but saved room on his upper arm to mark the birth of his beautiful daughter Hayden (both shown right). And as Hayden was born on a full moon, he added one behind her name and above it a rose with a pink diamond in it. Ok everyone, time for a group "aaawww."
Another note to self: add Eric to our growing N+S "objectified tattooed men."
Not to be objectified: This dude with the Stooges backpiece and facial ink!
Perhaps he'll be inducted into Australia MSN's world's worst tattoos hall of shame. A group rivalled by those featured in this blog: Most unfortunate tattoos for a mugshot.