In the early days of history, during the high times of the Roman and Greek rule, tattoos were considered foul; something only the unworthy would bear upon their skin. Upstanding citizens would not dare to score their skin with something as unholy as body ink, as in the mid 700s, Pope Hadrian declared body modifications to be sacrilegious.
Of course, it was this disdain for the practice that led to a unique, and cruel, method of punishment. Prisoners–as well as slaves and deserters–were tattooed with their crime. These disgraceful tattoos were generally placed across the face, hands, and chest; places that were hard to cover up or disguise upon release. Tattoo removals of the time period were extremely costly, brutally painful, and often inefficient, leaving the wearer marked for life as a former inmate; their sentence splashed across their face for a lifetime.
Today, prison tattoos take on another meaning.
We see them on the streets, in the doctor’s offices, at the daycare drop-offs. We admire them on the bus or eye them from afar. Most of the time, we are unaware that these complex patterns are, in fact, prison tattoos. What once was considered cruel and unusual punishment has altered; shifting to become a coveted activity that not only passes the time but shows pride in facing their punishment with dignity.
During the early 1890s, when the tattoo machine began to make its rise within the industry, prison art began to grow exponentially in popularity. Inmates would mock up crude representations of the early machine, utilizing sewing needles attached to some form of handle to apply the ink. Due to the roughness of the tool, these designs were extremely obvious–generally with little to no shading and heavy outlines. Prison tattoos began to take on a more professional appearance during the 1970s, when a single needle replaced the bundle and was affixed to a small, rudimentary electric motor, generally crafted from items such as toothbrushes, ballpoint pens, paper clips, and sharpened guitar strings.
It was thanks to this new method of applying prison tattoos that we saw the birth of a new style, simply called fine line. This unique style of tattooing gave off a photorealistic appearance, using delicate details and soft shading, done in only black ink. By the late 1970s, the design made its way out of the prison walls, becoming adopted by outside tattoo parlors and artists. This design has continued to occur inside but has managed to grow into one of the most popular designs used in the mainstream culture today.
Over the years, prison tattooing has drastically evolved. The machines have become more complex, being composed of CD motors and sharpened guitar strings, among other things. The inks have been improved, as artists have learned the art of watering down the black ink, allowing them to be able to use different shades of blacks and grays to create unique shading effects. With the right artist, prison tattoos can rival that of professional tattoos, making them virtually impossible to distinguish in some cases.
One important feature to note about these tattoos is the fact that they are actually deemed illegal in most prisons. The main reason this practice has managed to continue at such a steady stream is due to health reasons–prison officials found the risk and spread of diseases, such as Hepatitis C, was increased by inmates being forced to hide the practice. While it is still punishable, most are simply reprimanded and the makeshift machine confiscated.
So why has this practice picked up so much steam over the years?
Many would say it has to do with the fact that tattooing restores an inmate’s lost identity–that upon entering the system, they are stripped of all individuality and relabeled a convict, causing an internal war as they try to find their true self once again. In prison you become a number, some might say, and tattooing reestablishes individualism. Others will tell you they do it to remember people, places, and events in their outside lives. They may do it to remind themselves of the obstacles they have to overcome, or perhaps their demons that need to be faced. While there are those who utilize tattoos to take back their independence, there are those who use the method to show brotherhood or gained acceptance into a gang or society. While these are not the majority of inmate tattoos, gang membership tattoos have garnered the largest recognition in the category of prison tattoos. Each group has their own unique symbol that members wear upon their skin after being admitted entrance into the group. These symbols are generally fairly basic, being represented by a set of numbers, or specific order of dots. In some cases, the wording is used to convey membership. Unfortunately, these are the tattoos that have become associated with the process of prison tattooing; leaving the general public mostly unaware of the level of talent flowing within the system.
In many cases, tattooing has helped individuals face their punishments in a way they wouldn’t have expected. It gives them an outlet, a way to recreate themselves; to reclaim who they are. For the artists, it gives them a way to practice their art, and in many cases, they are able to take theirtattooing with them; securing a job in an outside parlor, allowing them to reestablish and adjust to being back in civilian populations. Regardless of the situation, prison tattooing is a fine art that should be recognized for what it is. In fact, the practice has captured the adoration of outside artists in a way that these exquisite inks have been exhibited by photographers, such as Peter Wollheim in 1993. The art that is able to be created by these makeshift tools is complex, detailed, and impressive and should be regarded as such.